Can Trumpism survive without President Trump?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

During the past four years, President Trump has asserted such an intense influence on the Republican Party that it can be hard to imagine the GOP without him as its standard bearer. But Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential race means Republicans now have to consider life after Trump in the Oval Office.

Trump’s relationship with the GOP hasn’t always been congenial. He once was a registered Democrat and frequent donor to Democratic candidates. He seriously flirted with a Reform Party presidential bid in 2000. In his 2016 bid, Trump humiliated his establishment rivals and frequently ripped GOP figureheads like then-House Speaker Paul Ryan and former President George W. Bush.

Trump reversed Republican conventional wisdom, ignoring the urging of party leaders to embrace more moderate views on immigration and other issues to expand the GOP coalition. Many high-profile GOP figures who had once criticized his tactics eventually adopted them and became some of his most fervent advocates.

In the past four years, the Republican Party has become the party of “Trumpism,” a loosely defined term used to describe Trump’s signature political style: a flair for spectacle, anti-elite rhetoric, racial grievance, an adversarial view of rivals and a tenuous relationship with — and sometimes outright disdain for — the truth. In just over two months, Trump’s presidential tenure will end. Will Trumpism continue without a President Trump?

Why there’s debate

If 2016 was the prime example of the electoral effectiveness of Trumpism, 2020 showed both its continued potency and its limitations. Trump defied polls that predicted a Biden landslide by increasing his total vote tally by at least 8 million over 2016. He did so by boosting turnout among his base and, to the surprise of many, improving his support among Latinos. But Trump also inspired an even larger turnout surge among Democrats and lost the support of suburban voters and independents, costing him the election.

The core of Trumpism, which harnessed the power of white rural voters in a way mainstream conservatism hadn’t, is here to stay, some argue. Trump redefined the GOP’s base so thoroughly, they say, that Republicans’ only way forward is to echo his tactics. In fact, that same approach without Trump’s divisive personal style may be even more effective, some say. Others see an opportunity for Republicans to pivot away from Trumpism with a strategy that maintains his focus on economic populism but tamps down on racial grievance politics to make the party more appealing to nonwhite working class voters. This may be necessary even if a sizable share of Trump supporters disengage from politics when Trump is no longer in the fray.

There’s also the question of whether Republicans would be able to pivot away from Trumpism if they wanted to. Even when he’s out of office, Trump is likely to loom large over the party. His supporters may line up behind the candidates he favors and abandon those he disapproves of. Also, Trump’s political career may not be over. Rumors that he may run for president again in 2024, even if they end up just being rumors, may make sitting Republicans hesitant to disparage the strategies of the man who may once again become the formal head of the party.

What’s next

Republicans won’t have to wait long to learn whether Trump’s base will turn out to support the GOP without him on the ballot. Two Trump-friendly Republican incumbents from Georgia, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, will face Democrats in runoff elections in early January, with the GOP’s Senate majority on the line.

Perspectives

Trumpism will endure

Trumpism will be more effective without Trump’s divisive personality

“If the Trump presidency ends now, Republicans can build on the bridges he’s built to working-class Americans and take advantage of the now-exposed insanity of the political left. Democrats will be stuck with their Green New Deal/Defund the Police extremism, but without anti-Trump animus to balance it out.” — Michael Graham, Boston Herald

Republicans need Trump’s base going forward

“Given how Trump’s base showed up massively in the past two presidential elections, it’s also unlikely that these voters are going to be jettisoned anytime soon by some other Republican presidential candidate in favor of an entirely new coalition. … The concerns of these voters have to figure prominently in the agenda of the GOP going forward.” — Rich Lowry, Politico

The idea that Trumpism would doom Republicans was soundly refuted

“There was no sweeping rejection of Trump and Trumpism, so the legislators who rode his coattails to Washington are most likely to hold fast to his brand of politics.” — David Mark, NBC News

Trump will continue to command the GOP even when he’s out of office

“Even if his own days as a candidate are over, his 88-million-strong Twitter following gives him a bullhorn to be an influential voice on the right, potentially making him a kingmaker among rising Republicans.” — Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, New York Times

Trump revealed that there’s a massive audience for his brand of politics

“Having understandably lost faith in elites and mediating institutions, populations around the world now seek protection, revenge … or at least a little humor at the expense of those failing institutions. Now that such market demand has presented itself, the main question is who next will rise to supply it. Because someone will.” — Matt Welch, Washington Examiner

Trumpism will fade

The GOP can build a potent multiethnic working class coalition if they ditch Trumpism

“For some Republicans who have watched as the party has been overtaken by Trump over the last several years, Trump’s loss comes with an opportunity — a chance to turn the page and return to expanding the coalition of voters Republicans can get in an election.” — Lauren Fox, CNN

The 2020 election was a resounding rejection of Trumpism

“Had this week’s results been accurately forecast and tallied like in any other year, I suspect the perception of Trump’s defeat would be very different. … The idea took hold that Trump’s mean brand of nativism hadn’t repulsed a clear majority of Americans. In fact, it had.” — Matt Bai, Washington Post

The internal fight over Trumpism will define the GOP’s future

“Trump’s defeat may now trigger a civil war of sorts within a wounded Republican party. Some will call for a purge of Trumpism and blow the dust off the party’s autopsy report that followed Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012: it demanded diversification and outreach to minority groups. But the results, and the record turnout, may suggest that the Republican party now has populist nationalism in its bones.” — David Smith, Guardian

Republicans would be wise to abandon Trumpism, but may not take the opportunity

“Trump may have come to grief this week, but the grievances and paranoias that have forged and maintained his core remain as strong — and as dangerous — as ever. In theory, Trump’s defeat provides what many would regard as a profoundly welcome opportunity to purge such a venal and divisive spirit from the Republican Party, but whether this will happen is far from clear.” — David Dodwell, South China Morning Post

Trumpism may not work without Trump

“One [possibility] is that some of the voters who turned out for the G.O.P. in the last two presidential cycles were drawn in by Trump’s celebrity charisma as much as by any of his policy arguments. … In which case you can’t just shave off the rough edges and expect a different politician to claim the same support.” — Ross Douthat, New York Times

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