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The GOP after Trump


A poll was posted on the Michigan football board, which in the deadest part of the offseason is much more concerned with the future of Donald Trump than of Michigan football. It asked, what happens to the GOP after Trump is gone? Of course a big part of answering that question is how Trump goes, and what that even means. Trump has already made it clear that he won’t accept defeat in the coming election, so what happens if he loses at the polls decisively? Or to put it another way, how decisively does he have to lose to avoid a succession crisis, either legally or extra-legally?

And if he does lose decisively, whatever that may mean, will he be “gone” at that point, or will we be re-living this same fever dream four years from now? Perhaps Trump won’t be “gone” in this sense until he’s dead, and not even then if he’s assassinated or, more realistically, dies under suspicious circumstances, which, given the state of the world and social media will mean pretty much any circumstances. So — lots of difficult preliminary questions!

That said, here’s the poll options:

A) Much of MAGA crawls back under their rocks and stops voting – forcing the GOP to moderate their message and generate a platform.

B) Someone rises up through the ranks and has the full support of MAGA. Xenophobia and destruction of democracy continues.

C) Something else like GOP dies and is replaced by a different center-right party, perhaps with Libertarian roots, conservative Democrats split off and join with Never Trump Republicans to form new party, etc.

A big part of answering this of course turn on the extent you believe Trump is a cause or a symptom of the current state of the Republican party, and of the American right wing. I think it’s obvious that, to a considerable extent, the answer is “both,” and the question is the proportion that we assign to each factor.

Indeed, I would argue that Trump’s role in the full transformation of the GOP into an authoritarian ethno-nationalist movement with both theocratic and fascist tendencies was initially largely causal, but has since become symptomatic, in that the transformations he has wrought are going to outlast him, no matter what happens to him politically, legally, and epidemiologically.

This in turn touches on the complicated question of the extent to which charisma is something that a political leader possesses inherently, as opposed to being something that is projected onto him, by a mass movement that is looking for the charismatic leader it then finds. This is the if Donald Trump didn’t exist it would have been necessary to invent him point of view.

So I would say (B) is most likely, although perhaps with some limited movement toward (A) as a pragmatic matter. I don’t think (C) is a realistic possibility in the foreseeable future.

But the question is a central one. My friend Michael the Atlanta lawyer who told me more than a year ago that Fani Willis was going to be a total disaster puts it as the great men v. structural forces argument. He answers:

I fall in the latter camp with the caveat that most modern historians would add that there is always the contingency factor, which gives a role for individuals to change outcomes. The GOP has been progressively moving off the rails for decades because of structural factors:

1. Changes in the economy that have been bad for white men without college degrees (automation, free trade, transition from manufacturing to service jobs, etc.) and that create a voting bloc that is tailor made for xenophobic appeals (hence the fact that we are seeing similar political movements throughout the Western world);

2. Changes in media consumption that have reduced barriers and thereby allow people to live within a media bubble and also be more prone to disinformation (again, this is happening throughout the West);

3. Increased immigration as it becomes easier to migrate in search of jobs, plus the fact that the American economy remains strong; and

4. More sophisticated gerrymandering that has created safe districts throughout Congress (and also in state legislature races) such that the threat is far more likely to come from a primary challenge than from losing to the other side.

These factors all existed before Trump, they aided his rise, and they will be there when he is gone. He’s a special kind of threat because of his sociopathic personality (hence contingency; it’s doubtful that most GOP Presidents would have caused January 6) but all of those structural factors will be with us after he’s dead or incapacitated.

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