What the Primaries Reveal About the Future of Trumpism

The movement no longer depends on Trump himself.

Illustration of Donald Trump's silhouette at a rally
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency / Getty

For all the talk about how Donald Trump’s endorsed candidates would fare in the Republican primaries this year, the results in this week’s races made clear: Whatever happens to Trump’s personal influence, Trumpism is consolidating its dominance of the GOP.

The former president’s scorecard on Tuesday was mixed. Candidates he endorsed won the GOP nominations for governor in Pennsylvania and Senate in North Carolina, while his preferred choice for Idaho governor failed to topple the incumbent and his late intervention could not save troubled young Representative Madison Cawthorn in North Carolina. The Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary remains too close to call between the celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, Trump’s candidate, and David McCormick, whom Trump has criticized.

Yet more revealing than what happened to the candidates Trump endorsed was how many candidates endorsed him. As in Republican primaries earlier this year, no top-tier contenders in any of Tuesday’s races ran on repudiating the bruising economic and racial nationalism that Trump has solidified as the GOP’s dominant ideology. In several contests, particularly the Pennsylvania Senate race, all of the leading candidates sought to define themselves as the most committed to Trump’s MAGA agenda—even McCormick, an Army veteran and former hedge-fund CEO. And almost all of the leading candidates echoed, to varying degrees, the former president’s discredited claims that he lost the 2020 election only because of widespread fraud.

“If ’22 was going to be a test of Trump and Trumpism’s dominance of the party, so far he’s pretty dominant and it’s pretty dominant,” says Bill Kristol, a leader among the GOP’s embattled Never Trump forces.

The determination of so many candidates to identify as Trump allies is a clear marker of how Republican voters themselves continue moving to the right. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the composition of the GOP primary electorate is “pretty dramatically different” from even 20 years ago, says John Brabender, a longtime Republican consultant in the state. “It is much more blue-collar Republicans, social-conservative Republicans, and Tea Party Republicans that dominate the primaries,” he told me, and fewer white-collar moderates in the suburbs outside Philadelphia. North Carolina, where Trump endorsee Representative Ted Budd won a Senate primary on Tuesday, has undergone a similar shift, as has Ohio, where J. D. Vance, also backed by Trump, prevailed in the Republican Senate primary earlier this month.

As the Republican electorate shifts away from the kinds of voters who might have resisted Trump, the party’s tilt toward Trumpism has become self-perpetuating. Trumpism, it seems, no longer depends on Trump himself.

Pennsylvania has a tradition of electing moderate Republican governors (Richard Thornburgh, Tom Ridge) and senators (John Heinz, Arlen Specter). But neither GOP primary this year produced a viable candidate who would qualify as a true moderate or even a Trump skeptic. The gubernatorial primary went decisively to far-right State Senator Doug Mastriano, who led efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential-election result in the state, supports banning abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy without exceptions for rape and incest, wants to repeal a state law allowing any voter to cast a ballot by mail, and has associated with figures in the extreme Christian-nationalist movement. Mastriano’s closest rival was Lou Barletta, who, as a mayor and later a U.S. representative, made his name by pushing hard-line policies against undocumented immigrants and became one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump in 2016.

The GOP Senate primary became a bidding war over who could demonstrate the most fealty to Trump. Oz relentlessly touted Trump’s endorsements and echoed his discredited claims of election fraud. The firebrand conservative commentator Kathy Barnette insisted, in effect, that she was more MAGA than Trump himself. Even after Trump disparaged him as a “liberal, Wall Street Republican,” McCormick, who might have been the establishment choice in another time, described himself as an “America First” conservative and promised to fight for Trump’s agenda. McCormick didn’t fully endorse Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen, but neither did he refute them, speaking of “all sorts of election irregularities which have essentially created a situation where Republicans, the majority of Republicans, don’t believe in the result.”

The Pennsylvania race reprised the recent Senate primary in Ohio, another state with a fading tradition of electing moderate Republicans (among them, George Voinovich, John Kasich, and Rob Portman, the retiring senator). Not only did Republicans nominate Vance—the author and former venture capitalist who reinvented himself as a MAGA-style populist and provocateur—but all five of the serious contenders in the race had said they would support Trump if he becomes the 2024 Republican presidential nominee.

In North Carolina on Tuesday, the double-barreled support of Trump and the conservative Club for Growth propelled Budd, who voted against certifying the 2020 election results, to a decisive victory. As of the latest results, Budd got more than double the number of votes of the next closest candidate, former Governor and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a more traditional, business-oriented Republican, who withered under charges that he was insufficiently conservative for the Trump-era party. A Budd win in November would constitute a significant lurch to the right for the state, whose retiring Republican senator, Richard Burr, voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial after the January 6 insurrection.

This pattern has been more mixed in races for governor than for Senate. Although Mastriano won Pennsylvania, Idaho Governor Brad Little, a staunch conservative, easily turned aside a challenge from his even more conservative lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, who had Trump’s endorsement. In Ohio earlier this month, Governor Mike DeWine, who positions himself closer to the center of the GOP, beat three conservative challengers (though he surprisingly received less than half of votes cast). In Georgia’s primary this coming Tuesday, Governor Brian Kemp, another staunch conservative, is expected to roll past his Trump-endorsed challenger, former Senator David Perdue.

GOP voters “don’t have the ire toward their statehouse that they do toward the U.S. Capitol,” suggests Jim Kessler, the executive vice president for policy at the centrist-Democratic group Third Way. Yet the overall tilt toward Trump-style candidates remains unmistakable this year.

That tilt reflects the fundamental shift in the GOP coalition that Brabender identified. In a process that predates Trump but has greatly accelerated since his emergence, the GOP has grown more reliant on non-college-educated, non-urban, and religiously conservative voters, many of whom express anxiety about demographic and cultural change in polls, while shedding support from college-educated and more moderate voters, especially those clustered in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

Pennsylvania crystallizes that change. In the early 1990s, about one-third of Republican primary votes in the state were cast across the southeast, in Philadelphia and its four surrounding suburban counties, according to calculations by Berwood Yost, the director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster. But by 2018, as residents of those suburbs continued a generation-long migration toward the Democratic Party, the Philadelphia region’s share of the state’s GOP primary vote had fallen to a little over one-fifth.

Simultaneously, the mostly blue-collar counties around Pittsburgh, in southwestern Pennsylvania, slightly increased their share of the GOP vote, while the less densely populated counties in the state’s center increased their share even more, Yost found. Results as of early Wednesday suggest that these patterns largely held in this primary, with Philadelphia and its suburbs again contributing only a little more than one-fifth of GOP primary votes, the southwest a little less than one-fifth, and the interior counties the remainder.

According to statewide Franklin & Marshall polls that Yost provided to me, from 2000 to 2022 the share of registered Republicans in Pennsylvania who were college graduates has declined slightly (even while college graduates’ representation nearly doubled among Democrats and increased by almost one-third among independents). The share of Republicans who identify as moderates or liberals has fallen by about half, as has the share who support tougher gun-control measures or believe that abortion should be legal in all circumstances; the share of Republicans who own guns has soared. “We’ve all heard about the realignment along [a] religious and cultural axis, but it’s pretty clear in this state that’s what’s happened,” Yost said. “And I think that mirrors the country as a whole.”

Indeed, in Ohio’s 2006 Republican Senate primary, when then-Senator DeWine defeated two conservative alternatives, the state’s three most populous counties—Franklin, Cuyahoga, and Hamilton—accounted for 22 percent of the total primary vote. This year, their share fell to about 18 percent, with the Republican vote growing in blue-collar northeast counties that have been battered by industrial decline, as well as in economically strained smaller cities like Akron and Toledo. In North Carolina, the GOP primary vote similarly has grown less reliant on the state’s big population centers and inner suburbs around Charlotte and Raleigh, and more dependent on distant suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas, according to calculations shared with me by Michael Bitzer, the chair of the political-science department at Catawba College in Salisbury.

What does this mean for the future direction of the GOP? The challenge for the small remnant of Republican candidates who resist Trump—or even those who want to support his general direction without personally bending the knee to him—is that these changes have shrunk the audience for any alternative path. As voters who are uneasy with Trumpism—largely college-educated suburbanites in metropolitan areas—have drifted away from the party, the core left behind is more receptive to Trump-style arguments. And the more that GOP primaries produce Trump-style candidates, the less likely center-right voters will be to vote in such elections at all.

That leaves little hope in the near term for the dwindling band of conservatives and Republicans who want to see the party shift back away from Trumpism. “There was a time I thought you could remove him and save the party,” Sarah Longwell, the founder of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, tweeted on Monday. “But looking at these GOP primaries—not to mention the last 18 months—it’s clear Trump has metastasized across the party. And it can’t be saved.”

While the triumph of Trumpism seems assured for now inside the GOP, less clear is whether it is a reliable formula for winning general elections. With as many as three-fourths of adults expressing discontent over the country’s direction, Republicans are highly likely to make gains in the November midterm elections, and the party’s winners inevitably will include some candidates in the Trump mold. But Democrats are optimistic—and some Republicans are wary—that GOP nominees such as Mastriano and, if he prevails, Oz will prove too extreme or flawed to win even in this environment.

“Democrats might be able to ride out the storm, so to speak, and flip a Senate seat,” says Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic consultant. “And to think you can flip a Senate seat in this political environment—it’s incredible, because if [Republicans] would just stick with sane candidates, there’s no way we win that race.”

Brabender countered that it’s wrong to discount almost any Republican at a moment when voters are so unhappy. “People are going to learn that the environment is going to dominate much more than the candidates will,” he predicted.

At minimum, it appears highly unlikely that November will produce the widespread repudiation of Trump-style candidates that critics such as Kristol consider the prerequisite to any GOP course correction. And if voters don’t decisively reject Trumpism in November, the odds increase that the GOP will embrace Trumpism again in 2024, either with Trump himself or another candidate who has embraced his agenda, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

That likelihood has huge implications not just for the competition between the two parties, but for American democracy. Republican primary voters so far have nominated multiple candidates who echo some version of Trump’s wild claims of 2020 election fraud, who promise to make it more difficult to vote, and who signal, as in Mastriano’s case, that they might seek to overturn any Democratic victory for president. The real price of Trumpism’s grip on the GOP might be a full-scale constitutional crisis in 2024.