Like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano, conservative intellectuals always return to panels on the future of the Republican Party. I’ve been covering these gatherings for almost 20 years. But I’ve never heard a conversation quite like yesterday’s between the National Review editor Rich Lowry and Karl Rove, the political architect of George W. Bush’s victories.
These men didn’t describe and handicap rival factions. Both believe that the future of the GOP is murky because Donald Trump is sui generis and so long as he’s president, no debate about what comes next can be settled.
An anecdote set the tone.
One day, Lowry found an envelope from the White House on his desk at National Review. Intrigued, he opened it up to find a clipped-out newspaper column. “I’d written about what a dominating political and cultural presence Donald Trump is––so even if you’re a Republican who wants to distance yourself or run away from Trump there’s just no way you can do it,” he explained. “I thought I had a lot of incisive and some disparaging references to the president. That actually made no impression on him. What caught his eye was the headline that the New York Post editors put on the column: THERE IS ONLY TRUMP.”
The president got a marker, circled the headline, drew an arrow to it and wrote, “Rich: So True. Donald J. Trump.” Lowry added, “My last three years have felt like that.”
“He has an enormously strong hold on the rank and file of the Republican Party,” he said. “It’s very high and it’s durable … He’s our leader now, and if people attack him, we rally to him. The average Republican says that he’s my guy.”
Ronald Reagan also inspired high, durable support among Republican voters— but only after joining an insurgency in the Republican Party that began with Barry Goldwater’s nomination and included a 1976 primary challenge of Gerald Ford. It was no surprise when he won the GOP nomination in 1980.
2016 was different.
“In my office I have a bookshelf groaning with all these conservative tomes,” Lowry said. “My Russell Kirk. My Friedrich Hayek. All the rest. When Trump was rising in the primary I would look at those shelves and say, as conservatives, we’ve always thought that ideas matter. They don’t matter at all! You have this guy just with sheer force of personality taking over the party. Usually, when you have that kind of shift … McGovern takes over the left but that’s been growing for years in the party. Now, there was this little tendency within the Republican Party or on the right, but you wouldn’t have thought, ‘Oh, it’s about to successfully nominate [this] candidate.’ So how do parties change?”
Rove was stymied.
“We are in a mess,” he said. “We are in a place where the party is going to have to figure out what it stands for. Because Donald Trump is going to be here for four years or eight years but after him it’s hard to see what comes next.”
What parts of Trumpism are viable without that personality––in a country where the Trump coalition gets demographically smaller with each year that passes?
Both men agreed that Trump tapped into right-wing populism. But in Rove’s view, that is not a sustainable recipe for victory. “An unceasing war on elites is a useful note to strike but not a governing agenda,” he said. “Why is it that populism in its purest form, left and right, has arisen in American politics around a personality and not been sustained after him? Andrew Jackson, populist. Does anyone think Martin Van Buren carried that forward? William Jennings Bryan. He was succeeded in the leadership of the Democratic Party after losing three presidential elections in a row by Woodrow Wilson, for God’s sake. Who replaced Huey Long or George Wallace? Somebody grabbed their people in every instance, but who was it that took that populist banner and carried it forward?”
Rove added a sharper critique of the Trump coalition’s populism.
“I think the problems with the populists—first of all, the alt-right should be unacceptable,” he said. “They are worse than the John Birch Society that Bill Buckley read out of the conservative movement in the 1950s. They ought to be read out of the conservative movement. There is no place in our movement for those people.”
“I don’t think there will be a figure like Trump again,” he said. “But I do think the party will have to be more populist, will have to be more nationalist, more socially conservative, not quite as libertarian, but has to think through what it means to be a more working-class-oriented party––and not just the white working class.”
This is, Lowry claimed, “one of the tragic missed opportunities for Trump so far. I think with his working-class politics and appeal, he has more potential than most traditional Republicans to tap into a segment of the black and Latino vote—working- and middle-class black and Latino males would be a fertile area. So how do Republicans appeal to those kinds of voters and become a more diverse party through a working-class populism that should not be defined by race?”
His assumption seemed to be that anti-elitism and anti-government sentiment were sufficient to secure enough populist support on the right to win the election in 2016––that Trump’s racist and alienating rhetoric about blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and more were unfortunate and unnecessary to his 2016 victory.
A counter-theory is that but for the racism and cruelty, Trump would’ve lost more voters than he gained, and Hillary Clinton would’ve won the election.
I tend toward the latter theory. But I also think that as crudely racist a candidate could not have won without Trump’s celebrity, talent on television, and dark charisma, all of which helped many Republicans deny what was in front of their noses. The GOP could still assemble a winning coalition by tapping less odious strains of populism. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory in California’s weird gubernatorial recall is an example of a populist-right insurgency untinged by racism.
“The Republican Party is going to have to create itself after Donald Trump leaves office,” Rove said, “because Trump is an impulse.” And there’s only one of him.
What’s next may simply turn on the character of whichever future Republican candidate is charismatic enough to win the presidency. Expect Fox News, conservative talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, and think tanks like the Claremont Institute and the Heritage Foundation to accommodate themselves to the next Republican president as surely as they came around to Reaganism, Bushism, and Trumpism.