The Coming Republican Amnesia

An illustration shows a scowling Trump fade away into the distance.
Paul Spella / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

As Donald Trump lurches through the disastrous final days of his presidency, Republicans are just beginning to survey the wreckage of his reign. Their party has been gutted, their leader is reviled, and after four years of excusing every presidential affront to “conservative values,” their credibility is shot. How will the GOP recover from the complicity and corruption of the Trump era? To many Republicans, the answer is simple: Pretend it never happened.

“We’re about to see a whole political party do a large-scale version of ‘New phone, who dis?’” says Sarah Isgur, a former top spokesperson for the Trump Justice Department. “It will be like that boyfriend you should never have dated—the mistake that shall not be mentioned.”

The plan might seem implausible, but I’ve heard it floated repeatedly in recent days by Republican strategists who are counting down the minutes of the Trump presidency. The hardcore MAGA crowd will stay loyal, of course, and those few who have consistently opposed Trump will escape with their reputations intact. But for the majority of GOP officials, apparatchiks, and commentators who sacrificed their dignity at the altar of Trump, a collective case of amnesia seems destined to set in the moment he leaves office.

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People who spent years coddling the president will recast themselves as voices of conscience, or whitewash their relationship with Trump altogether. Policy makers who abandoned their dedication to “fiscal responsibility” and “limited government” will rediscover a passion for these timeless conservative principles. Some may dress up their revisionism in the rhetoric of “healing” and “moving forward,” but the strategy will be clear—to escape accountability by taking advantage of America’s notoriously short political memory.

When I asked Doug Heye, a longtime GOP strategist, how his party will remember the Trump years, he responded with a litany of episodes to memory-hole. “Republicans will want to forget the constant chaos, the lies, the double-dealing, the hiring of family, and the escalating rhetoric that incited hate for four years [and] directly led to what happened at the Capitol,” he told me. “Basically, any of those things that we never would have let an Obama or Clinton get away with, but constantly justified to ourselves in the name of judges.”

But while some Republicans might be eager to “walk away from Trump,” Heye added, “many will continue talking about the things in the administration they supported”—from tax cuts and deregulation to flooding the judiciary with conservatives.

Indeed, the narrative now forming in some GOP circles presents Trump as a secondary figure who presided over an array of important accomplishments thanks to the wisdom and guidance of the Republicans in his orbit. In these accounts, Trump’s race-baiting, corruption, and cruel immigration policies—not to mention his attempts to overturn an election—are treated as minor subplots, rather than defining features.

Alyssa Farah, who worked for more than three years in the Trump White House as a communications adviser, resigned last month after the president refused to concede the election. She’s spent the past couple of weeks condemning Trump’s conspiracy theories and distancing herself from the havoc they’ve wrought. Still, when we spoke, Farah was eager to highlight America’s booming pre-coronavirus economy as proof of concept for traditional conservative policies. She lamented that Trump’s legacy might be defined by “the final days of it”—that is, the violent insurrection he incited and the re-impeachment it provoked—but she told me that Republicans shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Hoping to provoke a slightly more introspective assessment of the president she served, I asked Farah how she thought the Trump era would be written about in history books. After thinking for a moment, she suggested that this period might not be remembered for Trump at all, but rather for the “once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic” that happened to occur on his watch.

Other Trump allies hoping to reclaim the mantle of “respectable Republican” might choose to follow the Lindsey Graham model. The senator’s turn from truth-telling Trump critic to loyal acolyte—timed for his reelection bid last year in South Carolina—earned him a rash of savage headlines in the political press. But he’s already begun his post-Trump rebrand, starting with a speech on the Senate floor after the Capitol riot earlier this month.

“Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey,” Graham said in the characteristically cheerful drawl that scans to so many inside the Beltway as candor. “I hate it to end this way. Oh my God, I hate it. From my point of view, he’s been a consequential president. But today … all I can say is, count me out. Enough is enough. I’ve tried to be helpful.”

Graham’s implication was that he’d cozied up to Trump only to advise him on issues of grave national import—and that he was now breaking with the outgoing president on moral grounds. This version of events conveniently ignores the senator’s hyper-partisan defenses of Trump (he called the first impeachment a “lynching in every sense”), or his sycophantic sucking up (“He beat me like a dog” in 2016), or any number of dignity-sapping acrobatics he’s performed to stay on the president’s good side. By deciding to denounce Trump after the riot, Graham—like many of his colleagues—could try to claim that he put country before party (even if it wasn’t until the final days of Trump’s term).

Terry Sullivan, who ran Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016, told me he was unimpressed by this sudden rush to righteous indignation. “The newfound outrage from former Trump supporters rings a bit hollow, given how quiet most were during Charlottesville and countless other escapades,” he said. “Forty-seven months of blind loyalty followed by one month of conscience doesn’t earn you much more than the Mick Mulvaney profile-in-courage award.”

Sullivan was less certain, though, about whether the revisionism would work. “I don’t expect the voters will treat them any more kindly than the historians—but I’ve been wrong before.” After all, some predicted that the Republicans who worked for George W. Bush, especially the architects of the Iraq War, would be shunned once he left office. Instead, many of them have settled into respectable—and lucrative—perches as commentators, lobbyists, and elder statesmen. As long as the cable-news bookers keep calling, redemption is always available.  

Like many of the more high-profile figures who worked for the Trump administration, Isgur, the former Justice Department spokesperson, has spent the years since she resigned publicly repenting. She regularly criticizes the president on CNN and in The Dispatch, a publication founded by Never Trump conservatives. Last month, she published an essay in The Washington Post grappling with how she and her colleagues had “obscured the reality of a Trump presidency from the public.”

But Isgur also recognizes that these avenues aren’t available to every Republican tainted by the Trump era. Indeed, those with the least power may end up being the ones who find it hardest to recover.

“I’m thinking about those 22-year-old kids who took a very junior job for very little money to answer phones in the White House press shop,” Isgur told me. “They leave with that on their resume but without the ability to explain themselves. They don’t get to write an op-ed in The Washington Post, or go on cable news every day to stake out new territory.

“I think,” she added, “it’s yet to be seen where those folks land.”