Why Republicans Still Can’t Quit Trump

The 2024 GOP presidential nominee is highly likely to be an acolyte of the president’s.

Goldhafen / Getty / The Atlantic

With Donald Trump sagging in the polls against Joe Biden, the internal Republican debate about what a post-Trump GOP might look like is growing louder. And that dialogue is underscoring how hard it may be for Republicans to abandon the confrontational and divisive direction he has set for the party, no matter what happens in November.

The debate obviously will be shaped by whether he wins or loses—and if he loses, whether by a narrow margin or resounding one that costs Republicans control of the Senate. But there’s no guarantee that even a substantial Trump defeat, which more Republicans are now bracing for, will persuade the GOP to change course.

Almost all observers in both parties that I’ve spoken with agree that a Trump loss will embolden the Republicans who have been most skeptical about his message and agenda to more loudly press their case. Yet many remain dubious that whatever happens in November, those critics can assemble a majority inside the party by 2024—one that’s eager to reconsider the racial nationalism and anti-elite populism that has electrified big segments of the Republican base but alienated young people, minorities, and a growing number of previously Republican-leaning suburbanites.

That means a Republican Party committed to Trump’s strategy of maximizing support among the white voters most uneasy with America’s demographic and social changes may endure for years, even as the nation’s racial and religious diversity inexorably grows. That view is common, though not unchallenged, inside the GOP, both among those who welcome and fear that prospect.

“It is entirely feasible, looking forward, that Trump loses by 10 points and Republicans lose six seats in the Senate,” says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center who has been critical of Trump personally, but sympathetic to aspects of his agenda and vision for the party. “That’s a scenario … that will change the narrative and embolden the revolt against modified Trumpism. But it’s not going to change the dynamics of the party.”

From the other pole of the GOP, Mike Madrid, a former political director for the California Republican Party, largely agrees. “I don’t believe Trumpism is going away,” says Madrid, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans working to defeat Trump. “There will be a much more sizable voice for a different direction. The problem is, it’s not likely to be big enough, because the base is still his base—it’s still 75 percent of folks” in the party.

No GOP leader discussed as a possible 2024 contender has openly criticized or broken from Trump. The two who seem to be auditioning most directly to take up Trump’s mantle are Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri. Cotton’s New York Times op-ed urging the deployment of troops to America’s cities was widely seen among Republicans as more evidence that he wants to run in 2024 as the most unwavering defender, and extender, of Trump’s revolution inside the party. He has also unreservedly rejected the idea that racism in policing is a systemic problem (without ruling out support for some reforms), and he’s moved to the forefront of Republican opposition to immigration.

Hawley hasn’t been quite as confrontational on the protests, but he co-sponsored legislation from Cotton to cut legal immigration in half, recently called for eliminating the World Trade Organization, and has echoed Trump’s “America First” populist language. With degrees from Stanford University and Yale Law School (Hawley) and Harvard University and Harvard Law School (Cotton), each man may “try to pose as a more sophisticated and effective version of Trump,” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, the director of political studies at the libertarian Niskanen Center and the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of moderates inside the GOP.

It’s a measure of Trump’s iron grip on the party that Nikki Haley, his former U.N. ambassador who has resolutely avoided criticizing him—and even praised his law-and-order speech last week—is viewed as probably the closest thing to an alternative path for the party. Without ever overtly breaking away, she has signaled some contrary instincts. Her tweet expressing anguish about George Floyd’s killing seemed like another sign that she is positioning herself as a “kinder and gentler” heir to Trump, reminiscent of how George H. W. Bush ran when he succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1988. Similarly, she insisted on a conservative podcast that America needs immigrants: “We need the skills; we need the talent; we need the culture.” (Like her Floyd tweet, that drew her a stiff rebuke from conservative media.) Still, one of her main political messages since leaving office has been to urge a harder line in America’s relations with China.

Other potential candidates have less clearly defined how they might sell themselves. There’s also uncertainty within Republican ranks about what Vice President Mike Pence’s lane will be if he runs in 2024. While his copious service to Trump gives him some credibility as an inheritor, he’s identified more with the fusion message that Ted Cruz tried and failed to sell in 2016: a social-conservative warrior who’s also a fiscal hawk. In any case, Pence is hardly viewed as a prohibitive front-runner, as Richard Nixon and Al Gore were after their service as vice president. “The fact that there are so many people who are mobilizing so early suggests … this is a person who has strengths, but is far from unchallengeable,” Olsen says.

The paradox facing Republicans who fear that Trump may be leading the GOP into an electoral dead end is that the changes to the party’s coalition that he’s precipitated tend to be self-reinforcing. If the voters most resistant to Trump’s tone and messaging leave the party, those who remain necessarily tilt even more toward him. Win or lose, the general election is likely to accelerate this dynamic. Even if Trump manages to squeeze out an Electoral College victory, polls show that he is likely to lose more ground in and around the country’s major cities and rely even more on non-college-educated and evangelical white voters centered in exurban and rural America. That would make those Trump-friendly groups an even larger share of the GOP primary electorate in the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential contest. And that would make the climb that much tougher for future GOP candidates who want to steer the party toward more inclusive messaging.

Stanley B. Greenberg, the veteran Democratic pollster and author of the 2019 book R.I.P. GOP, says the re-sorting process is well under way. In his polling since 2016, the share of the GOP coalition that comprises Trump’s base—evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, and those who identify with the Tea Party movement—has grown from 60 percent of the total to 67 percent. As Trump has “pushed … out of the party” college-educated suburban voters, he “has left a party that is totally dominated by Tea Party [conservatives] and evangelicals,” Greenberg argues. “That bloc is just not going away.”

The remaking of the GOP coalition predates Trump. But he has locked it in. Recent data from the Pew Research Center track this long-term shift. Pew studied the shifting composition of registered voters who identify with each party based on 360,000 survey interviews over the past quarter century. Among Republicans today, Pew found, 66 percent are white Christians, 58 percent are men, 57 percent are whites without a college degree, and 56 percent are over 50 years old. In all, 81 percent are white. In each case, those groups represent a considerably larger share of the Republican coalition than they do of society overall—and that gap has been widening since earlier this century.

White Christians and non-college-educated white voters, for instance, have fallen to 44 percent and 43 percent, respectively, of all registered voters, but they remain dominant majorities inside the GOP. Perhaps most strikingly, although white evangelical Christians have slipped to little more than one-sixth of all registered voters, they still comprise about one-third of Republicans, Pew found. Analyses of exit polls from the 2008, 2012, and 2016 GOP presidential primaries found that evangelicals represented an even larger share of actual voters, just above or below half in each case.

A parallel version of this sorting has unfolded in Congress, where both the House and Senate GOP caucuses now tilt heavily toward districts and states with fewer racial minorities, college graduates, and urban centers. House Republicans hold only one-fourth of the seats with more college graduates than average, fewer than one-fifth of the seats with more minorities, and only about one-ninth of those with more immigrants than average. In the 20 states that voted for the Democrat in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, Republicans hold just two of the 40 Senate seats—and both of those incumbents, Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado, are highly endangered in November.

This reconfiguration has produced a GOP coalition that’s united around key pillars of Trumpism. In a national poll last year, the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found big majorities inside the GOP for building Trump’s border wall, imposing his Muslim travel ban, and limiting legal immigration. Large majorities also endorsed the beliefs that discrimination against white people is now as big a problem as discrimination against minorities, and that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” In separate polling from Pew last year, nearly four-fifths of Republicans said that people alleging racial discrimination where it doesn’t exist was a bigger problem than people not seeing it where it does. Annual surveys by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that the share of Republicans who describe large-scale immigration as a “critical” national-security threat rose from three-fifths in 2004 to almost four-fifths last year.

The contraction of the GOP coalition is why Madrid believes that the party may be locked into a cycle in which it grows only more strident. Starting in the early 2000s, as California became more and more diverse, the state GOP became more and more uncompetitive. In response, white conservatives there rejected calls to broaden their message and instead doubled down on hard-line positions on immigration, guns, and abortion, among other issues. He says the national GOP may be on the same trajectory—committing more heavily to a Trumpian message of white racial identity as even more voters who came to the party for other reasons (like cutting taxes) drift away. “The Republican Party could become the National Front in France,” with support from a “hard floor and a hard ceiling” of about one-third of the country, Madrid says.

Other Trump critics I’ve spoken with aren’t as pessimistic about the party’s long-term electoral prospects or the chances of adjusting its direction in 2024. None of them, though, discount the self-reinforcing dynamics that have solidified Trump’s control over the GOP. “I think it depends totally upon what happens in November,” says the longtime GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who has often been critical of Trump’s direction. A Trump victory, he says, would cement “Trumpism [as] … the new brand” of the party. But if Trump loses, especially if he costs the GOP the Senate in the process, “the Republican Party will have an existential crisis trying to figure out what it is and what it stands for.”

The big hope of more centrist GOP elements is that if Biden wins, his moves to implement a left-leaning Democratic agenda will alienate some of the suburban voters who abandoned the GOP under Trump. That would mitigate the narrowing cycle that Madrid and Greenberg anticipate and create a bigger audience for a possible alternative to Trumpism in the 2024 primary. “You have to hope and assume that the next Democratic president drives a lot of those voters back to our party, just as [Barack] Obama did in some ways,” says Alex Conant, a GOP consultant who served as Marco Rubio’s communications director in his 2016 presidential race.

The wild card in this debate is Trump himself. Most former presidents have played little or no role in the internal party arguments that followed their tenure. But almost everyone I spoke with for this story assumes that if Trump loses, he will remain highly visible in trying to shape the GOP’s next steps, perhaps even by starting his own television network, as he’s sometimes hinted. “The extent of Trump’s power in a post-Trump world matters a great deal,” says Sarah Longwell, a co-founder and executive director of Republican Voters Against Trump, another GOP group opposing his reelection. “And a lot of that power is going to be predicated, in the scenarios in which he loses, on what that loss looks like.”

If he does, kibitzing from the sidelines may not be all he has in mind. Olsen points out that the Constitution’s two-term limit on presidents means that if Trump falls in November, he could run again in 2024. There’s even a precedent: Democratic President Grover Cleveland was defeated for reelection in 1888, but then ran again and recaptured the White House in 1892. Far-fetched? Maybe. But on Election Day 2024, Trump will be only about six months older than Biden’s age when voters cast their ballot this November.