What Does a Trump-less GOP Look Like?

AW
December 10, 2020

The election sent mixed messages to GOP politicians. On the one hand, Pres. Donald Trump lost re-election, proving that his divisive, all-base-all-the-time approach to governing flopped. On the other hand, GOP members of Congress who sit in red/pink states, including many who have mimicked or praised this same style, easily won re-election (e.g., Lindsey Graham). In other words, those GOPers running in 2022 (or positioning themselves for 2024) have no reason to abandon Trump-ism. Neither do the many political opportunists and grifters who stoke real and imagined controversies to help bankroll their own "political projects." 

While many want to label Trump-ism as 21st Century "populism," it is more about style than substance. It is a politics that prizes resentment over reconciliation. Fights are not a means to an end; they are the whole point. 

But, to succeed, Trump-ism also needs a good foe. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton played those roles well in 2015-2016. They were easy to caricature as 'elites' and 'not one of us.'

Biden, however, proved to be more challenging to define. The older white guy with a middle of the road demeanor and political agenda provided little red meat for the base to gnaw on. Instead, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter and AOC/The Squad served as Trump's foils.

So, what happens when Trump leaves the scene, and it will be Biden, not a controversial progressive Democrat, who sits at the White House? 

Many point out that Democrats were able to keep the “Resistance” going long after the 2016 election. But, the Resistance wasn't based on fealty to Clinton. Instead it was driven by a deep, burning dislike for Trump. Trump enjoyed and encouraged battles with them. Biden, however, has shown little interest in having those same sorts of fights. He's not engaging in 'tweet for tweet' battles with Trump over the president's attacks on the election. His cabinet personnel choices don't include liberal lightning rods that could keep the outrage fires burning (It's hard to believe that Neera Tanden's Twitter account is going to be as enthralling as, say, Benghazi). He's not going to introduce a "Defund the Police" bill. Or Medicare for All. 

Moreover, Americans have a much more favorable view of Biden today than they had of Trump at this point in 2016, or at any time of Trump's presidency. A late November 2020 Gallup poll found Biden's favorable rating at 55 percent. A recent PRRI survey pegged Biden's favorable rating at 59 percent. Gallup's first post-election poll in 2016 put Trump's favorable rating at 43 percent. The president's favorable ratings never broke 49 percent. 

A lot will also depend on the two runoff Senate elections in Georgia. If the GOP holds on, Biden will become the first Democratic president since Grover Cleveland to begin his first term without Democratic control of both legislative branches. This, of course, will make it tough for the Biden White House to get much done. But, it also means that it will be harder for Republicans to make the midterm elections a referendum on Democratic "over-reach" the way they did so effectively in 2010 and 1994. 

Of course, there are lots of decisions that Biden will make that will upset his own coalition. His intra-party detractors have their own large megaphones through which they can deliver criticisms, potentially drying up enthusiasm and energy from the Democratic base for the midterm elections. 

And, then there's the staying power of Trump himself. 

There's little doubt that the president is going to do all he can to retain his grip on his party, and more importantly, on the spotlight. And, given that the majority of Republicans continue to stand by his baseless (and dangerous) claims about election fraud, there's no reason to believe that he's going to lose any of his political influence once he's out of office. 

Even so, he's going to be surprised to find that his 2 AM tweets from Mar-a-Lago don't get the kind of wall-to-wall coverage they did when they came from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And, will weighing in on a GOP House primary be enough to satisfy a man who, not long ago, was the leader of the free world? Sure, Sarah Palin turned herself into a post-election GOP King Maker in 2009-10, but she also had never reached the heights of Trump's celebrity and success.

Another thing to watch for in these next few months is the staying power of the Trump brand. Will folks still be flying their Trump flags proudly from their cars? Will the homemade Trump signs get a new coat of paint? Or, as the breathless coverage of Trump diminishes, will these totems fade away as well? What about the many legal challenges facing Trump and his family when he leaves office, including investigations into his businesses by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and New York Attorney General Letitia James? If both or either bring charges, just how serious will they be? Will they dampen enthusiasm for Trump among his supporters? Or will this only help to embolden their belief that the 'elites' and 'insiders' are doing all they can to railroad Trump?

For the last four years, everything about our politics has been viewed through a Donald Trump filter. For half of America, everything he did was terrible. For the other half, he could do no wrong. It's hard to remember a time when he wasn't taking up all of the political oxygen in the country. But, at the end of January, he will be without the bully pulpit and attention he craves. The more boring and functional the Biden White House, the harder it will be for Trump to stoke the outrage he needs to stay relevant. We'll see soon enough just how successful the Biden team will be at this.