Delegates at the 2016 RNC
Delegates at the 2016 RNC (Photo: Yahya Ahmed, reproduced under Creative Commons license)

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.

Ben Sasse has harshly criticized Donald Trump
Ben Sasse has harsh­ly crit­i­cized Don­ald Trump (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

Nikki Haley is one of the most high-profile women in Republican politics
Nik­ki Haley is one of the most high-pro­file women in Repub­li­can pol­i­tics (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)


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.

Speculation is rife that Don Jr. will take up his father's mantle
Spec­u­la­tion is rife that Don Jr. will take up his father’s man­tle (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced by Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

Dan Crenshaw is an idol to young conservatives
Dan Cren­shaw is an idol to young con­ser­v­a­tives (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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).

Tom Cotton speaks to New Hampshire Republicans in 2016
Tom Cot­ton speaks to New Hamp­shire Repub­li­cans in 2016 (Pho­to: Michael Vadon, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

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