How Trump Changed the Republican Party
Four reasons why the Republican/conservative revolt against Trump is weak.
1. It’s 2015 All Over Again
In the most obvious way, elite Republicans have adopted the same posture towards Donald Trump today that they affected in 2015: They’re against him. What we’ve seen over the last two weeks is a semi-coordinated attempt from Team Normal to eject Trump from the Republican party and prevent him from becoming their 2024 presidential nominee.
A lot like in 2015.
But there is an important difference and it speaks to how Trump has changed the character of the Republican party—not just at the demographic, grass-roots level, but at the elite level, too.
In 2015 and 2016, Republican and conservative elites worried that Trump would lead the party to defeat, but their objections were, for the most part, moral. The stated position was that Trump was a Bad Orange Man who was unfit for office and would be a stain on the Republican Party.
Here’s Lindsey Graham in December 2015:
He's a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot. He doesn't represent my party. He doesn't represent the values that the men and women who wear the uniform are fighting for.
Here’s Marco Rubio at various points in 2016:
Over the course of his presidential bid, Sen. Marco Rubio called Donald Trump a “con man” who was “dangerous” and unqualified to control the nation’s nuclear codes.
National Review in January of 2016:
Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones. . . .
Trump has shown no interest in limiting government, in reforming entitlements, or in the Constitution. . . . His obsession is with “winning,” regardless of the means — a spirit that is anathema to the ordered liberty that conservatives hold dear and that depends for its preservation on limits on government power. . . .
If Trump were to become the president, the Republican nominee, or even a failed candidate with strong conservative support, what would that say about conservatives?
There was a lot more of that, but you get the idea. The basic version of conservative/Republican objection to Trump 2016 was: This is not who we are.
Fast-forward to November 2022 and the elite conservative/Republican objections to Trump 2024 are entirely tactical. They claim that he harms the ability of Republicans to win elections and that this claim—and only this claim—is why he should not be supported.
Here’s Chris Christie this Saturday:
We keep losing and losing and losing. And the fact of the matter is the reason we’re losing is because Donald Trump has put himself before everyone else.
Here’s Republican advisor David Urban:
Republicans have followed Donald Trump off the side of a cliff.
And here, again, is National Review just a few days ago:
His inability to approximate the conduct that the public expects of a president undermined him from beginning to end.
The latter factor played an outsized role in his narrow defeat to a feeble Joe Biden in 2020 in what was a winnable race. . . .
[H]e threw away two Georgia Senate seats in a fit of pique over Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refusing to bend to his will. . . .
The party’s position has significantly eroded under his hegemony. . . .
A lesson of the midterms was that association with Trump and “stop the steal” were liabilities . . . Democrats helped choose MAGA candidates that were eminently defeatable in GOP primaries this year, and nominating Trump — whom Democrats are pining to run against again — in 2024 would replicate this experience on a much larger scale. . . .
It’s too early to know what the rest of the field will look like, except it will offer much better alternatives than Trump.
The answer to Trump’s invitation to remain personally and politically beholden to him and his cracked obsessions for at least another two years, with all the chaos that entails and the very real possibility of another highly consequential defeat, should be a firm, unmistakable, No.
All of that stuff about Trump being a bigot who is unfit for office in a democratic republic, an aspiring strongman who is dangerously unmoored to the Constitution? Gone.
The problem with Trump now, they argue, is that if he’s the nominee he will probably lose. And he might cause other Republicans to lose, too.
There are a four things to note about this line of argument.
(1) No agency. The new elite arguments against Trump strip everyone in Republican circles of agency, except for Donald Trump. Trump is the singular force who causes all things to happen. Trump forced elected Republicans to go along with him. Trump is responsible for all Democratic victories and all Republican defeats.
And most importantly, it was Trump who forced Republican voters to nominate Doug Mastriano and Kari Lake and all the rest. These faceless millions could not resist his edicts. In this view, Republican voters are children who simply do what they are told. Donald Trump has been telling them to vote one way. Now Republican elites are trying to tell them to vote another way.
This is a top-down view of Republican intra-party politics. And maybe it was an once accurate view of how the party functioned. But even if it was, at some point in the past, it is not clear to me that it is still accurate today.
(2) A situational objection. Imagine that a few thousand votes in a few races had gone differently. Imagine that Republicans flipped the Nevada and Georgia Senate seats—which would have required a total of about 40,000 votes. Imagine also that Republican votes in House races had been distributed in a slightly more advantageous manner. Remember: Republicans won the House popular vote this cycle. It was their best popular showing of the Trump era.
With two very small changes, Republicans would have controlled the Senate and had a more comfortable majority in the House.
At that point, what would the elite objection to Trump 2024 be?