The GOP's Problems Are Bigger Than Trump

President Trump’s hold on the Republican Party is overstated. But that doesn’t mean that his downfall would resolve its challenges.

Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters

Conventional wisdom holds that Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party. That’s been the conclusion of articles in The New Yorker, Mother Jones, New York, The Washington Post, The Hill, Politico, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Telegraph, USA Today, Time, the New York Post, The Boston Globe, and beyond.

Most recently, the PBS show Frontline titled an episode “Trump’s Takeover.” In its telling, President Trump wasn’t yet in control of the GOP as recently as his failed effort to get a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare through Congress. Then, he succeeded in signing a tax-reform bill into law. In the celebration that followed, he was praised by Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Orrin Hatch, even as critics like Senator Jeff Flake were preparing to step away from politics.

“What the Republican establishment now knows,” Corey Lewandowski proclaimed, what they’ve “learned in the last year,” is that Trump is the GOP’s leader. “He is the one who sets the tone of what takes place in Washington, he is the leader of our country … both politically and from a legislative side of things.”

But is that really so?

Yes, Trump beat a big field to become president, he is more popular among GOP voters than any rival, many elected Republicans fear publicly crossing him at the moment, and he is influential in setting the tone in Washington. Still, the conclusion that he has taken over the Republican Party is overstated and premature.

Consider these counter-points:

First, Trump’s position is unusually shaky for a first-term president. His influence will take a huge hit if the GOP loses big in the 2018 midterms. And it could suffer if investigations into Trump or his associates expose a significant new scandal. Neither of those outcomes is assured. But both are very plausible.

Second, if Trump starts to seem like he’s hurting the GOP’s popularity more than he is helping it, he has no reserve of personal goodwill or substantive support for his ideas on which to fall back. Trump’s unpopularity was illustrated most colorfully by an unnamed GOP representative quoted by conservative commentator Erick Erickson. “I say a lot of shit on TV defending him,” the legislator said. “But honestly, I wish the motherfucker would just go away. We’re going to lose the House, lose the Senate, and lose a bunch of states because of him. All his supporters will blame us for what we have or have not done, but he hasn’t led. He wakes up in the morning, shits all over Twitter, shits all over us, shits all over his staff, then hits golf balls. Fuck him. Of course, I can’t say that in public or I’d get run out of town.” The unnamed congressman even declared of the president he has defended on television, “If we’re going to lose because of him, we might as well impeach the motherfucker.”

Third, the GOP establishment has so far accomplished much more than whatever is supposed to be replacing it. Asked what Trump has achieved, his defenders typically respond that he appointed a Supreme Court justice, passed tax cuts, and got rid of unnecessary regulations. It is easy to imagine Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio doing those same things. Trump’s achievements reflect GOP priorities going back decades, not anything new to his agenda. America is as entangled abroad as it was at the end of the Obama administration; there is not yet a colossal wall rising on the southern border, let alone one paid for by Mexico; the U.S. remains in NAFTA; Trump has done nothing to meaningfully improve infrastructure; and he has done nothing notable to help opioid addicts to recover.

Fourth, there is no heir apparent to Trumpism, or even a deep stable of future presidential aspirants like the one that the Tea Party movement provided the GOP.

That isn’t to say that the GOP can separate itself from Trump. The party’s embrace of a man so open in his racism, sexism, and xenophobia will be an albatross for a generation. Trump’s corruption will sully his associates for years. And his rise conveyed truths that aspiring GOP office-seekers will note: Their base does not, in fact, demand an embrace of foreign interventionism, support for free trade, or cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

That will change future campaigns.

At the same time, I suspect that a GOP candidate could still eke out victory in a presidential primary while championing a neoconservative foreign policy, free trade, and entitlement reform, if he or she also possesses the traits that I take to have been most crucial to Trump’s victory: charisma, fame, utter disregard for respectability as media and political elites define it, a talent for evoking and channeling anger, and adeptness at what Trump fans might call triggering snowflakes.

Trump combined those qualities in a manner so unlike any modern president that it is tempting to see their centrality to our politics as evidence of his takeover.

But to ascribe those qualities to Trump’s rise ignores the many ways that they predated him among the true architects of today’s GOP: right-wing populist entertainers. In a recent column surveying Paul Ryan’s years as a Republican, Ross Douthat writes that the GOP was “leaderless, rudderless, yawing between libertarian and populist extremes.” But were Republicans actually rudderless?

A faraway observer could mistake a whaling ship for a vessel meandering to and fro without purpose, rather than deliberately heading toward a series of destinations.

The populist right of 1994 to 2014 might have seemed rudderless, insofar as it appeared to drift from the Contract with America to late 1990s anti-interventionism to panicked anti-jihadism to Iraq War boosterism to the Tea Party to Donald Trump-style white nationalism. But all the while, its captains were going full-throttle toward a consistent sort of destination that the populist right cared about more than any policy agenda: culture-war clashes with liberal elites.

Those clashes were like whales: Populist entertainers like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Andrew Breitbart could be relied upon to spot the biggest one, take aim, and attempt a ramming maneuver.

That isn’t to say that various iterations of right-wing populism were without earnest adherents of substance. Opposition to mass immigration was a consistent populist plank. Lots of GOP voters believed in the Contract with America; lots believed in Bush’s militaristic response to the attacks of September 11, 2001; lots believed in the small government ideology behind the Tea Party; and lots believe in the big government ideology of Trump-style nationalism.

But anti-leftist ressentiment was always the lodestar of right-wing populism, so much so that successive iterations could be substantively different or even contradictory, yet still be led by the same entertainers and backed by similar coalitions. Who could champion George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump as if there were no contradiction in doing so? Rush Limbaugh, for one. And much of his audience.

“Paradoxically, the right’s ideological diversity is often what breeds intellectual conformity,” Douthat wrote in 2010. “It’s precisely because American conservatism represents a motley assortment of political tendencies united primarily by their opposition to liberalism that conservatives are often too quick to put their (legitimate, important and worth-debating) differences aside in the quest to slay the liberal dragon. After all, slaying liberalism is why they got together in the first place!” Trumpism is merely the latest iteration of right-wing populism––whether it will prove to be more or less fleeting remains to be seen. Sooner or later, however, it will be as discredited as bygone iterations.

The good news for Republicans, as Trump fails in office due to his personal corruption, lack of discipline, alienating bigotry, and an alarmingly erratic personality, is that his ostensible takeover of the Republican Party is much exaggerated. Its politicians and voters may soon dispense with him and deny even to themselves how much they once supported him, just as bygone populists did with George W. Bush, the invasion of Iraq, and Glenn Beck’s rantings.

A new iteration of right-wing populist ressentiment will follow. Limbaugh will support it, too, no matter how ideologically incompatible it is with Trumpism. Just watch.

And that brings us to the bad news for the Republican Party: Dumping Trump won’t actually get rid of the pathologies that made his rise to president possible. Republicans will remain vulnerable to takeover by charismatic hucksters without a substantively constructive policy agenda, an ability to successfully govern, or a vision for a coalition that transcends ressentiment. And the populist entertainers will keep getting filthy rich in the process.

It is they who’ve come closer to taking over the GOP.