The death knell of Donald Trump’s presidency started sounding in the early hours of November 6th, as Joe Biden overtook him in Pennsylvania and Georgia.
As the fallout of the 2020 election becomes ever more clear, many are questioning what is next for the Republican Party itself. Will they be able to shake off the specter of Trumpism and pivot to some version of political normality?
Or will they continue to orbit the malignant influence of Trump, perhaps even degenerating into something worse? These questions will likely be answered in the next quadrennial election cycle, when the Republicans will have to choose a new figurehead. Which candidates will be able to win over the party?
A return to convention?
Even before November 3rd, there were signs that some members of the Republican Party were chafing under Trump’s yoke – signs which multiplied as it became clearer that he would lose. As Trump made increasingly outrageous claims (including as the votes were being counted), major figures in the party – including top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell – pushed back against his rhetoric and tried to restore confidence in the voting process.
This pushback – reminiscent of the “never-trumper” wing of the Republican Party that Trump has largely intimidated into silence over the past four years – could be the start of a revival for a more traditional form of Republican politics.
If this wing of the party were to gain traction, there are a number of high-ranking figures that could take advantage of any backlash against Trumpism.
The most august of these individuals is, without doubt, Senator Mitt Romney.
Romney, who represents Utah, has already headed the Republican Party’s ticket once before, losing to Barack Obama in 2012.
He has spent his time as a U.S. senator openly offering a contrast to Trump’s vision of Republicanism, most notably when he became the only senator in United States history to vote to convict a president from his own party. It’s rare for a losing candidate to make a comeback, but it has happened before – Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960, only to win the presidency eight years later.
Mitt Romney’s age (he will be seventy-seven in 2024) makes it unlikely he will run, but there are a variety of younger candidates who fit his political mold. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska has criticized Trump since the latter won the Republican nomination in 2016 (although he votes for Trump’s agenda almost all the time). In recent weeks, he has ramped up his attacks on the President, calling him a “TV-obsessed, narcissistic individual” in a meeting with his constituents.
Aside from Trump’s direct critics, there are also a good number of Republicans who have kept their heads down for the past couple of years, but hold more moderate views than the president.
Expect figures like South Carolina Senator Tim Scott (who turned heads with his RNC speech), Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and former‑U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to start testing the waters for a future White House bid.
Of course, there is no guarantee of a return to anything like “business as usual.”
Trump is, after all, not an aberration but a symptom of a deep-rooted disease in his party (and the nation as a whole). What’s more, Trump has repeatedly signaled his intention to remain a political influencer even if he is ousted from the White House and the Republican Party is in no position to resist his malign influence. Indeed, there has already been speculation that Trump may mobilize his personality cult to re-nominate him for the presidency in 2024.
I think that event is unlikely, especially once Trump realizes that he doesn’t need the trappings of the Oval Office to sway large swathes of the Republican Party, why go to the bother of campaigning, when you can remotely sway a nomination from the comfort of a Mar-a-Lago suite?
Instead, expect an ex-president Trump to incessantly tweet and call Fox anchors like Sean Hannity, trying to boost whoever his preferred crony happens to be.
If you thought the spectacle of people prostrating themselves before Trump has been bad before now, expect it to get much worse in the coming four years.
Figures like Mike Pence, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis rode Trump’s coattails into power – their political ambitions will rely on pandering to a retiree’s whims every day for the next four years.
Republicans may even decide to keep it in the family – both Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have been touted as potential future contenders.
Although Ivanka’s lifestyle and marriage could turn off a large part of the elder Trump’s radicalized base, Donald Jr. has become a Republican star in his own right, becoming the party’s most sought-after surrogate in the 2020 election.
Can it get worse? Oh yes…
It’s tempting to think that Donald Trump represents the nadir of American politics, but unfortunately, things can get much worse. Donald Trump’s policies are monstrous and his opinions are hideous. Fortunately, his agenda over the last four years has largely been stymied by his circle’s rampant corruption and his own total incompetence in using the machinery of government.
In ‘Homage to Catalonia,’ a memoir of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell reflects that although the fascists might win the war (they ultimately did), life would not be as unendurable in Spain as in other fascist countries because of the laissez-faire, siesta-loving Spanish way of life.
Donald Trump can perhaps be compared to the authoritarians who ruled Spain from the 1930s – monstrous and bigoted, yes, but too corrupt and lazy to pursue his aims to their logical conclusion. What happens when a candidate comes along with Trump’s ideas, and a German sense of efficiency?
In the words of New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “do you know how many Trumps there are in waiting?”
Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has already embraced Trump’s brand of faux populism: railing against coastal elites, despite having risen to power through Harvard, Yale and a D.C. law firm; lambasting big tech companies for a “business model of addiction,” while boosting conspiracy theories that rely on social media to thrive; and portraying himself as an economic populist while destroying labor unions and opposing minimum wage raises.
Meanwhile, in Texas, a former Navy SEAL has garnered a reputation as Republicans’ “best answer to AOC,” due to his youth, outspoken style, and piratical charisma. With half a million followers, Dan Crenshaw is the most popular House Republican on Twitter, and like both AOC and Donald Trump he used a savvy approach to social media to outplay his own party’s establishment.
However, the comparisons to AOC and progressives stop there.
Crenshaw has spent much of 2020 throwing doubt on the science of the coronavirus pandemic, he supports slashing Social Security and Medicaid, and wants to keep troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.
The most dangerous of these candidates, however, is undoubtedly Tom Cotton.
Cotton is one of Arkansas’ two United States Senators.
His calm temperament and relatively steady climb of the political ladder give him a veneer of respectability, and credibility with the big-money donors who power Republican politics (many of whom never warmed to Trump’s brash style).
However he is, if anything, even more extreme than Donald Trump.
Cotton’s rise to fame in conservative circles has been punctuated by a series of nauseating letters. When he was serving as a soldier in Iraq in 2006, he wrote a letter calling for New York Times war correspondents to be jailed for investigating secretive government programs.
In 2015, as a freshman senator, he led the Republicans in upending the norms of foreign policy by authoring a letter to the leaders of Iran.
Ignoring the executive branch’s authority over foreign affairs (and arguably breaking the law in the process), Cotton’s letter tried to tear down years of sensitive negotiations between the U.S. and Iran by threatening Iranian leaders and promising to renege on any deal made.
Trump later followed Cotton’s advice, and abandoned the JCPOA.
Cotton has also written op-eds calling civil rights activists “race-hustling charlatans,” described slavery as a “necessary evil,” and called the Southern Poverty Law Center a “political hate group.”
His most famous letter of all, though, has to be his New York Times op-ed calling for military force against peaceful protesters – a threat so disturbing that it led to a public apology and he resignation of the NYT’s Opinion Editor. Cotton never apologized, and his campaign fundraising reportedly quintupled after the article.
Cotton hasn’t just made empty threats, but has used his position of power to actively carry out cruelty. In 2015, Cotton blocked the nomination of an African-American nominee for an ambassadorship, telling the nominee that he saw it as “a way to inflict special pain” on the first Black president.
Cotton has also led Republican efforts to crush immigration reform and restrict entry for refugees. Cotton’s record of bad votes spans from hypocritical (as when he voted against the federal government giving student loans, despite benefiting from the program himself) to downright depraved (as when he refused to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act).
Joe Biden’s victory on November 6th was convincing, but far from a landslide. Democrats have little room for error as they try to rescue the country from the incredible damage wrought by Donald Trump’s regime. There are plenty of Trump fans itching for the chance to pick up from where Donald will leave off.