Is Larry Hogan Living in a Fantasy World?

The Maryland governor is on a crusade to bring back Reaganism when his party’s embrace of Trumpism has never looked stronger.

Larry Hogan
Dolly Faibyshev / Redux

Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, gave a speech this month at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, in which he declared that the GOP was “desperately in need of a course correction.” He called on the so-called Party of Reagan to end its dependency on Donald Trump and return to the heyday of the 40th president, Hogan’s hero. “America can once again be that shining city on a hill that Reagan talked about,” he told a politely nodding assembly of a few hundred guests. He spoke with an aura of sentimental duty, in the shadow of the same Air Force One that Reagan had ridden 660,000 miles on as president. He mentioned Big Tent conservatism, after-hours drinks with Tip O’Neill, the whole bit.

Oh, bless your heart, governor.

At almost that precise hour in Cincinnati, Ohio’s just-declared Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, J. D. Vance, was engulfing his favorite former president in a rhetorical bear hug. “They wanted to write a story that this campaign would be the death of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda,” said Vance, the Hillbilly Elegy author who had previously likened Trump to “cultural heroin” but was now quite obviously hooked himself. “It ain’t the death of the ‘America First’ agenda,” Vance said, fulminating against “the clowns out there in political world” and singling out Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Marjorie Taylor Greene for special thanks. There would be no course correction in Ohio, in other words—unless you counted the one that Vance himself had undergone.

You can linger on the split screen of this: the juxtaposition between the still-raucous spirit of Trumpism on display in Vance’s Ohio and Hogan’s longing for the mythical Gipper to descend from that museum-piece Air Force One. Or maybe split screen is a misnomer, as it implies a fair fight between events of comparable weight and attention.

In reality, few outside a handful of political hard cores even knew that Hogan was giving his address, part of a speaker series the library has hosted this year for a parade of Republicans of national stature, many of them—including Hogan—potential 2024 presidential candidates. The party is grappling with “truly existential questions,” said Roger Zakheim, the Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, as he introduced Hogan. It is a “time for choosing,” he said, invoking the famous career-launching address that Reagan delivered in 1964 on behalf of Barry Goldwater.

But in the present context, “time for choosing” would seem to imply, dubiously, that Republicans have not been “choosing” Trump and Trumpism for nearly six years now. This is the great puzzle about Larry Hogan: If the governor thinks the GOP can become the party of Reagan again—and that Hogan himself can lead it there—don’t the continued ascendancies of the J. D. Vances suggest, at the very least, an impossibly uphill battle? Is Hogan just living in a shining city on a hill of wishful thinking? I wondered, in so many words, why he was even bothering.

I asked Hogan about this a week later, in his office in Annapolis, where he was finishing out the final months of his final term. “I think it got way too much attention, frankly,” he said of Vance’s victory. Vance, Hogan pointed out, had received less than a third of the GOP vote, while Ohio’s incumbent Republican governor, Mike DeWine, whom Trump has repeatedly trashed (“a terrible, terrible guy”), received nearly half in his own blowout that night. “Okay, so Trump got one,” Hogan said dismissively. “He’s still going to lose a lot of races this year.” And when he does, Hogan believes, Trump’s perceived stranglehold over the party will weaken.

In fact, Trump-endorsed candidates have achieved convincing victories across several states this year. Last week, the devout MAGA-man Doug Mastriano easily won the Republican gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania, and in North Carolina, the Trump-endorsed Ted Budd won the party’s Senate nomination by more than 30 points. Even more striking has been how the dark markers of Trumpism—denial of the 2020 election results and sympathy for (if not outright complicity with) the January 6 insurrectionists—have become only more entrenched inside the party. Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator, attended the “Stop the Steal” rally that led to the ransacking of the Capitol. Budd, a U.S. representative, voted against certifying the 2020 presidential-election results.

Hogan’s only point was that, after the Republican primaries are over, Trump’s won-lost record will be a mixed bag. Assessing broader trend lines, and not getting caught up so much in individual races, will be more important, he said.

“I’m not trying to say that Donald Trump is not still the 800-pound gorilla in the party,” Hogan told me. “But I think it’s much less than where it was in November of 2020, and much, much less than after January 6. I just see him on a downward slide, and that will just accelerate this year.”

As with any claim that Trump’s dominance of the GOP is waning, deep suspicion is warranted.

“I think you just have to be clear-eyed about where the party is right now, which is still an extraordinarily Trump-centric environment,” says Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who conducts regular focus groups with voters across the political spectrum. These exercises, she told me, have allowed her to be realistic and not engage in “fantasy politics” when assessing the Republican electorate. “I just see no evidence whatsoever that our voters want to go back to a kind of sunny, bipartisan Reagan vision,” Longwell said.

Longwell knows and admires the Maryland governor a great deal, she told me. But none of the voters she’s spoken with appears to be craving Larry Hogan.

Hogan, who has a bald, sloping head and resembles an accountant in a meatpacking plant, speaks in an aggressively bland monotone. He will readily cop to being boring, even offers this as proof of his serious, unflashy bona fides. “I don’t come from the performative-arts school of politics; I come from the get-to-work-and-get-things-done school of politics,” Hogan told me. He has this studied sheepishness down. “And it turns out that’s what people want,” he said, “which is why I have a 76 percent approval rating in a blue state and why Trump is no longer president.” (In most recent polls, Hogan’s approval has been in the high 60s or low 70s.)

Hogan will happily denigrate the former president, which makes him something of an outlier among elected Republicans. It has also gotten Hogan a fair amount of attention, at least among a constituency of national media and political geniuses who don’t live in Iowa or Ohio. At the very least, this has been good for business, as Hogan will be term-limited out of his job soon and is eager to raise his national profile.

He is also, probably, going to run for president in 2024. Or at least talk a lot about it, which Hogan has been doing for three solid years now, dating back to the previous election, when a bunch of anti-Trump Republican donors and commentators (who also don’t live in Iowa or Ohio) urged him to undertake a primary challenge against Trump. Hogan ostentatiously flirted with the idea for months, found his way to Iowa and New Hampshire—wow, interesting!—and reaped the requisite and perhaps excessive press attention that potential presidential candidates draw. (I have contributed to the Hogan-mention bubble myself, starting in 2019 and as recently as a few weeks ago.)

Hogan opted not to run in 2020, saying he had no interest in launching a suicide mission against Trump. It would be a different calculation in 2024, however. If Trump runs again, Hogan said, he will be much more vulnerable to a presidential-primary opponent. Trump will be more of a known quantity, and his presidency will be remembered, even by a great many Republicans, as an ordeal. Hogan offers himself as a potential island for what he calls “the exhausted majority of voters” of both parties.

Various other “Trump alternatives” have attempted to make this case, including those who implicitly tout their fealty to “the Trump agenda.” What’s distinct about Hogan among non-Trump Republicans is that he is devoting real effort to trying to hasten the neutering of the 800-pound gorilla. He has campaigned and raised money for the likes of DeWine, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and a selection of Republican House members whose willingness to defy the former president (by voting to impeach or other such blasphemies) has landed them in the MAGA crosshairs.

In addition to helping with the mechanics of campaigning and fundraising, Hogan can at least model brave behavior, his allies say. “I think people get caught up in the bad things that happen to Republicans who Trump decides to go after,” says Michael Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and Republican National Committee chair who has become a vocal Trump critic, and has known Hogan for 30 years. “Larry can send a message to the other people who are scared of the bully.”

Hogan invokes similar language, envisioning himself as a kind of political bodyguard. “I’m just saying, ‘Hey, stop trying to steal their lunch money,’” he told me. At minimum, Hogan is hoping to make the Republican Party a safer schoolyard. “I think we’re coming closer to a time where a Republican attacking Trump is no longer seen as a kiss of death,” Hogan said. “Once his candidates lose a bunch of races this year, I think more Republicans will suddenly get up a dose of courage.”

“Courage,” of course, has never been in great abundance among the putative Republican “leaders” of the Trump era, including (or especially) those who harbor private doubts about or even contempt for the Almighty 45th. Their reluctance to cross Trump has created a leadership vacuum that Trump and his various acolytes have continued to fill.

“Look, I don’t want to be a pundit here,” Hogan is constantly saying—usually right before launching into punditry. First off, he believes that Trump will not run in 2024. “In spite of what he says, Trump knows he lost to Joe Biden, and his ego couldn’t take losing again,” Hogan told me. “I think he’s enjoying playing golf, having people come down to Mar-a-Lago, kiss his ring.” Trump will milk the possibility of running again, Hogan believes, and then say at the last minute that he isn’t.

Even if Trump does run, Hogan says that would have no bearing on his own decision. “If anything, Trump running might encourage me to run,” Hogan said. More punditry: He believes that there will be a “lane” in 2024 for candidates who are decidedly anti-Trump, for candidates who want to assume the Trump mantle, for candidates who might want to assume parts of the Trump mantle but are offering something different—including a lane for him, potentially. “I believe there is a pretty large lane for sane Republicans,” Hogan told CNN’s Jake Tapper earlier this year. “And they’re looking for a voice.”

Again skepticism abounds. “There is no ‘anti-Trump-lane’ in this GOP,” the former Republican House member Joe Walsh tweeted in response to these comments. “There is no ‘sane NeverTrump lane.’ It doesn’t exist.”

Even Hogan occasionally feels the need to give Trump some due. The governor said he mostly objected to the former president’s style in office, but allowed, “I like some of his policies.” This is a familiar feint among even Republicans who otherwise dislike Trump. When I pressed Hogan, though, he said that he supported Trump’s tax cuts but offered no other real areas of approval. He mentioned that he was happy when Trump said he was going to focus on infrastructure, “which is a passion of mine,” but conceded that Trump achieved nothing on this (Biden did). Likewise, he conceded that Trump’s immigration and COVID policies were disasters, with the exception of the Operation Warp Speed program to develop vaccines.

Hogan also mentioned that he was one of the only Republican officeholders who publicly called for Trump to resign after January 6 and to let Vice President Mike Pence finish out the final days of the term. “No, I don’t think Trump was a good president,” the governor said when I asked directly.

For now, Hogan said his focus remains his current job, which ends January 18. “I want to land the plane, run through the tape, and complete the job,” he said, among other variants of the “finish strong” cliché. The next eight months will also include a number of forays on behalf of several non-Maryland Republicans, as well as two visits to New Hampshire and a stop at the Iowa State Fair this summer.

As Hogan prepared to depart his office for an evening reception with a group of firefighters, he reiterated that he remains an optimist, in the finest Reagan tradition. “He doesn’t have to happen again,” Hogan said of Trump, as we ended the interview. “We just have to make sure he doesn’t happen again,” he added as I left him to his twilight in Annapolis, if not Morning in America.