Populism Without Popularity

The Republican Party now has two paths forward.

An illustration of Trump with two red lines and elephants
Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Updated at 6:10 p.m. ET on November 15, 2020.

In the November issue of The Atlantic, Barton Gellman reported that Republican legislators in Pennsylvania were quietly discussing a seemingly mad scheme.

These legislators foresaw that their state, and its 20 electoral votes, would probably be won by the Biden-Harris ticket. But Republicans still possessed a 107–91 majority in the state assembly, and a 29–21 majority in the state Senate. What if they could somehow set aside the vote by the people of their state—and appoint electors who would support President Donald Trump?

“In Pennsylvania, three Republican leaders told me they had already discussed the direct appointment of electors among themselves,” Gellman reported, “and one said he had discussed it with Trump’s national campaign.”

The idea rested upon language in the Constitution: “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors.” Since 1787, all the states have enacted laws mandating that electors should be nominated by the political parties, with the final selection being determined by the popular vote. Pennsylvania’s current version of the electoral law was enacted in 1937, and has been taken absolutely for granted by all Pennsylvania voters ever since.

But what is law in the age of Trump? Trumpists regard it as little more than a guideline, subordinated to the whims and moods of the president. If Pennsylvania law thwarts Trump, then Pennsylvania law must be discarded for Trump.

Gellman’s report of the Pennsylvania plan was instantly denied by the state’s Republican Party chairman, Lawrence Tabas. Tabas accused Gellman of misinterpreting his words and those of other state Republicans. And there things paused for five weeks.

But within 48 hours of the close of voting on November 3, the radio-show host Mark Levin took to Twitter to urge Republican legislators in Biden states to do just what Tabas had denied any Republican legislator ever thinking of doing: set aside the presidential-election result in their state.


Donald Trump Jr. promptly retweeted Levin. When Twitter posted a warning that the Levin tweet was deceptive, the White House press secretary protested. (Don Jr. retweeted her protest, too.)

On Fox News that evening, Sean Hannity asked Senator Lindsey Graham about setting aside the election results. Graham replied that “everything should be on the table.” On November 8, Levin and former independent counsel Ken Starr batted around the idea on Levin’s Sunday-evening Fox News program. Levin strenuously urged it; Starr chucklingly endorsed it.

Two days after that, Axios reported that the Tabas-denied idea was being discussed by Trump’s inner circle.

Here on planet Earth, it remains vanishingly unlikely that any state legislature would dare try such a thing. The idea matters less as an imminent threat, more as a milestone marking the distance that Trump Republicans have traveled from democratic loyalties.

Almost two weeks after the close of voting on November 3, Trump continues to seek ways to remain in office despite his loss in the Electoral College, hurling bizarre allegations of voter fraud. On November 12, the president of the United States twice amplified a claim from an anonymous poster on a right-wing site that voting machines had deleted millions of Trump votes. One tweet was immediately contradicted by Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security. But Fox News talkers promptly repeated the crazy presidential claim.

The work of undermining the 2020 election and the legitimacy of the winner is led by Trump, but supported by much of his party. Many of these Republicans may think they are merely temporarily humoring a childish and emotionally needy president. Some may just enjoy trolling liberals, trashing democracy for clicks and giggles. But cumulatively, they are having an impact. Cowardly or corrupt or cynical as Trump’s partners in destruction may be, they are trusted by millions of well-meaning Americans.

And although the voter-fraud hoax will ultimately fail, this disavowal of democratic procedure will exert powerful influence on U.S. politics for at least the rest of the decade.

After all, Republicans can only even contemplate setting aside the popular vote in Pennsylvania and other states because of their state legislative majorities. And how did Republicans get those majorities? Not by majority vote. In 2018, some 4.6 million votes were cast in the Pennsylvania state House elections. Democratic candidates won nearly 2.5 million of them; Republicans, a little less than 2.1 million.

But deft gerrymanders have combined with geographic concentration to create near-permanent Republican majorities in Pennsylvania, regardless of the popular vote. Republicans will almost certainly retain those majorities.

If it seems shocking that anybody would consider leveraging minority rule over a state legislature into minority control of that state’s presidential vote—well, perhaps that is only because the idea is new. We have all long since gotten used to minority rule over a state legislature being converted into control of a state’s delegation in the U.S. Congress. In 2018, Republicans converted their minority vote in Pennsylvania into nine of the state’s 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Nor is Pennsylvania alone; similar stories can be told of the other Biden states whose electoral votes are now being eyed by Trump.

Democrats got 52 percent of the vote in the Michigan state elections of 2018, a majority. But Republicans won 58 of 110 seats in the state assembly, and 22 of 38 in the state Senate—and seven of Michigan’s 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Wisconsin is an even more extreme case. Democrats won 53 percent of the vote in 2018. Republicans won 63 of 99 seats in the Wisconsin assembly; 19 of 33 seats in the state Senate; and five of the state’s eight seats in the federal House.

Donald Trump is a lawless authoritarian. But well before Trump arrived on the scene, his party was consciously building an ever more integrated system of minority rule.

This is not a new thing in the United States. Before the civil-rights era, a similar system of interlocking practices served as a force multiplier for the white South. In 1948, South Carolina and Kansas had approximately equal populations. In the election that year, the 1.9 million people of Kansas cast 789,000 votes. In that same year, the 2 million people of South Carolina cast 142,000 votes.

By suppressing political competition at home, southern Democrats could accumulate seniority in Congress. The most senior members claimed chairmanship of committees. The committees in turn controlled the operations of Congress. From 1955 until 1967, one segregationist southerner—Howard Smith of Virginia—used his chairmanship of the House Rules Committee to determine which bills could be voted on by the whole House, what they could contain, and, most important, what they could not contain. (Smith did not always win. In 1964, he tried to sabotage the Civil Rights Act of that year by inserting a prohibition on sex discrimination—probably in an effort to embarrass northern Democrats, whose labor-union supporters opposed bans on sex discrimination. The scheme, if it was a scheme, backfired: Both race and sex discrimination were banned by the enacted law.)

This system had its limits. The white South of the pre-civil-rights era accepted minority status within the United States. Between the Civil War and Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1976, only two southerners claimed the White House. The first of them, Woodrow Wilson, left the South as a young man; the second, Lyndon B. Johnson, arrived via the accident of assassination.

Rather than bid for supremacy over the whole nation, the white South sought to leverage local dominance into a national veto, and then to wield that national veto to claim a disproportionate share of national resources.

The Voting Rights Act and other reforms of the 1960s and ’70s sought to consign leveraged minority rule to the political past.

The question for Republicans post-Trump is this: Do they wish to return to that past?

The Trump presidency presented Republicans with an alluring mirage. Trump’s politics of grievance summoned into being a new coalition—a coalition that won the Electoral College in 2016 and that endured all the crises and scandals of the Trump years. A solid base adhered to Trump through thick and thin. It was not a majority, but it was close enough to a majority that maybe, with some shrewd maneuvering, it could suffice.

The problem was that the things that Trump did to consolidate his base also summoned into existence an anti-Trump base every bit as solid as the pro-Trump base. Trump excited ferocious loyalty, and equally ferocious antipathy. He triggered an arms race of political mobilization, with both Democrats and Republicans heading to the polls in 2018 and 2020 in record-breaking numbers. And unfortunately for the pro-Trump cause, the anti-Trump coalition was not only as fiercely committed as the pro-Trump base but also millions of people larger.

Since the election, some of Trump’s supporters have begun to ponder pursuing a “Trumpism without Trump,” crafting a Trumpist ideology severed from Trump’s self-harming personality and grudges.

There are at least two big problems with this concept.

First, it’s not at all clear that such a thing as Trumpism exists, apart from Donald Trump’s own personality and grudges. Subtract Trump’s resentments and the myth of Trump the business genius and what’s left? Are immigration restriction, trade war with China, and blowing up NATO really such compelling concerns? Are those goals what energized 71 million Americans? Would they energize voters to support Tom Cotton, Dan Crenshaw, Josh Hawley, or Marco Rubio? That seems unlikely. And while there are potential contenders for the resentment vote—the cable host Tucker Carlson, Trump’s son Don Jr.—they cannot offer the myth of business success. Worse, they overdo the resentment. That’s fine for carving out a cable-TV or Facebook-based business. But if resentment didn't work politically for George Wallace in 1968, it’s not going to work for George Wallace knockoffs in 2024.

The second problem is that Trump was felled by basic math. He polarized American society in a way that trapped him on the less numerous pole. The anti-Trump vote exceeded the pro-Trump vote by almost 3 million in 2016, by nearly 9 million in 2018, and by 5 million and counting in 2020.

Trump’s ego needs blinded him to that truth. He clutched a fantasy of his superb campaign and triumphant candidacy, and even now, he clings to the delusion that he did not really lose the 2020 election by a decisive margin. But Trumpism without Trump would face the challenge of reality. Trumpism minus Trump is Trumpism minus the excitement that mobilized Trump supporters, but still with many of the issues that repelled Trump opponents. Trumpism minus Trump has no idea how to shrink the gender gap among voters, no idea how to appeal to the college-educated, no message for the suburbs except more and noisier racism, nothing that can speak to the productive centers of the new American economy.

As for the idea of bypassing the college-educated, the suburbs, and the great majority of American women so that the party can reinvent itself as “a multiethnic, multiracial working class coalition,” in Rubio’s words—how can that fantasy come to life? The GOP has no coherent policy on health insurance or college-tuition costs. Trump appealed to less educated voters in part via his seething loathing of experts. But unlike his would-be successors, Trump meant it. He could feel smart only by dismissing everybody else as dumb, and the more expert those other people were, the more he needed to demean them. Some enjoyed that performance, more were appalled, but all could see it was real.

Trumpism is the political equivalent of losing money on every sale but hoping to make up the loss by volume. The harder you try, the worse you do.

All of which leaves Trump’s successors with only two practical strategies to follow. The first alternative is the one at the top of this piece: accept candidly that post-Trump Republicanism is likely to remain a minority party, and then maximize the powers of that minority.

As I write today, it looks like Republicans have actually strengthened their grip on the machinery of redistricting, enabling another decade of minority rule.

In cases from North Carolina and Wisconsin in 2018 and 2019, the Supreme Court greenlit partisan gerrymandering as long as those doing the gerrymandering take care to leave no evidence of racial animus on the record. Since the Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, enacting measures to suppress votes or to purge voters from the rolls has become easier, and if Republicans retain a majority in the Senate, they can ensure that no new Voting Rights Act supplements the old one.

Since the Senate map is becoming steadily less representative over time, this project of minority rule can be a robust basis of power for many years to come, even without the presidency. Better yet, as in the Obama years, if a Democratic president is nonwhite or female or highly educated or all three, cultural resentment of that president becomes a mighty weapon of partisan recruitment and media engagement.

The Republican future in this scenario replicates the southern-Democratic past. There is another way forward for the party, but it involves more change.

This way begins with a basic fact: Over the course of the 2010s, the share of adult non-Hispanic whites with a college degree rose from 33 percent to 40 percent. That proportion will continue to rise in the 2020s.

It is education more than immigration that is making formerly red states purple, or even blue. In Texas, for example, the higher the proportion of college-educated adults in a county, the harder that county swung to the Democrats in the Trump era. One result, noted by The Texas Tribune, is that Dallas and Fort Worth are following Austin and Houston into the Democratic column—and in the six fastest-growing Texas suburban counties, Trump won by a cumulative total of a tenth of a percentage point, or 2,515 votes.

Similar stories can be told in Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina.

To compete, Republicans must adapt to the new American electorate: more secular, more diverse, more accepting of female leadership. And this is possible.

In California, the same electorate that rejected Donald Trump by a larger margin than it rejected Barry Goldwater in 1964 also voted 57–43 against Proposition 16, reaffirming the state’s ban on racial preferences in public education and public hiring.* A Korean American woman, Young Kim, won the hotly contested race in California’s Thirty-Ninth District, centered on Richard Nixon’s hometown of Yorba Linda. The next Republican House caucus will include at least 25 women. Seven of the Republicans who flipped districts in 2020 were women.

Republicans showed some suburban strength in 2020. They won the Twenty-Seventh Congressional District in Florida, stretching southward from Miami Beach and Miami International Airport. They won the Twenty-Fourth in Texas, which extends atop Dallas from Plano to Fort Worth. They could do better still as a modern party of center-right, business-savvy, fiscally conservative, culturally modern voters, sheared away from the crooks and kooks of the Trump years.

It may take time for Republicans to acknowledge to themselves the truth about the Trump years. But they can act on that truth even if they do not acknowledge it. They can begin by putting an end to Trump’s postelection tantrum and accepting without further weasel talk the reality of Joe Biden’s victory and his presidency. Then they can quit the gerrymandering business and recommit themselves to equal voting rights—competing to win over voters rather than disenfranchising them. Their goal should be creating a modern party of the center-right, redeemed from the squalor of the Trump era, unafraid of elections equally and fairly open to every adult citizen.

Otherwise, America is heading back to the politics of the Jim Crow era, with privileged minorities manipulating antidemocratic state rules to thwart democracy at the national level. This was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

The former Canadian ambassador to the U.S., Allan Gotlieb, used to say of American politics: “It’s never over until it’s over. And when it’s over, it’s still not over.” Democrats recovered from being on the wrong side of the Civil War. Republicans survived being on the wrong side of the Great Depression’s recovery. Trump’s party can recover from Trump. But first, it must make up its mind that it wants to try, and try by means worthy of a democratic society.

*This article previously misstated that Californians voted for Proposition 16. In fact, voters rejected the ballot measure.