7 January 2021

Can the Republicans kill the parasite of Trumpism?


The past 48 hours will long be long remembered as an extraordinary moment in US history – when reality and delusion clashed in the starkest way imaginable. While the story came in two acts – the unlikely Democratic victories in Georgia and the grotesque scenes in the Capitol building – they are seamlessly intertwined.

On Wednesday morning, unaware of what would come later in the day, allies of soon-to-be Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were already gearing up for war with Team Trump. As I suggested in the Spectator on Tuesday, it is hard to overstate the series of unforced errors that created the perfect storm for Republicans to lose their Senate majority in Georgia. Above all, turning the Grand Old Party into a personality cult, based on slavish loyalty to one man, performs less well when he’s not on the ballot – especially when his adherents have been continuously told that elections no longer deliver results.

While Democratic turnout in Georgia fell by just 6% compared to November’s election, 12% of Republicans failed to turn out again. This is a total reversal to previous elections: in 2008, Democrats were 14 points less likely to vote twice in the Senate run-off held that year. Part of this change is unique to the circumstances of Georgia’s vote – it being fairly unusual for a party’s leader to actively suppress their own vote – but also tells us something about the changing Republican coalition under Donald Trump.

The grand bargain between the GOP establishment and Trumpism was the President’s ability to make huge inroads among working class voters, including both former Democrats and non-voters, who wouldn’t have previously considered the party. These ‘left-behind’ voters, deeply culturally conservative but often economically interventionist, are disproportionately located in the key Midwestern and Rust Belt states needed to win the Electoral College. Few places is this starker than Mahoning County, Ohio – home to the declining manufacturing city of Youngstown – where Barack Obama won by 28 points in 2012, only for Trump to score a 2 point victory last year.

The ways in which the President, both in tone and substance, riles up his working class base, however, have proven toxic among upscale, educated voters, especially in America’s suburbs. This can be seen clearly in working class, traditionally Democratic states like Iowa and Wisconsin now voting significantly to the right of former Republican bastions like Colorado and Virginia.

While Trump came up short in November, this evolving coalition is seen by many Republicans as far more useful for winning the White House and Senate long-term: there are simply more working class conservative states than metropolitan ones. Indeed, while Biden beat Trump by 7 million votes nationwide, had just 44,000 more people opted for the latter in three tight states, he’d be headed for a second term as a result of an Electoral College tie. Josh Hawley, who has led objections to the election results in the Senate this week and has been pushing for a $2,000 relief cheque, tweeted the morning after November’s vote: “the future is clear: we must be a working-class party, not a Wall Street party.”

While the advantages in a presidential election are clear, however, relying on less educated, less reliable voters weakens the party’s turnout in other elections. Furthermore, the extreme messages and actions needed to try and raise participation of the Trump electorate further push away the party’s reliable suburban former base.

While it should have been easy to persuade wealthy Country Club Republicans in suburban Atlanta to vote for the party’s Senate candidates to put a check on the progressive whims of an incoming Biden administration, a campaign dominated by wild conspiracy theories simply served to alienate them. These contortions were on display when Kelly Loeffler, originally appointed to the Senate to appeal directly to wealthy voters in the suburbs, went from loudly proclaiming her intention to challenge the state’s presidential votes at a rally in Trump country on Monday – to walking back this position on the Senate floor last night, following her defeat, the storming of the Capitol building and likely reflections on her future.

In short, while the Trump coalition may be more usefully located across America – it is likely less reliable – a fact that could augur poorly for the party heading into the 2022 midterms.

But turning this around and reclaiming the party’s former base will be easier said than done. Donald Trump and his adherents will likely control the Republican primary process for many years to come, even if he isn’t himself the candidate. The President has already promised to support a primary challenger to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, cast out for the cardinal sin of refusing to commit electoral fraud on Trump’s behalf. Doug Ducey in Arizona seems in a similarly perilous position.

Reactions to yesterday’s events in Washington illustrate this quite starkly: YouGov polling shows that while 71% of Americans disapprove of the storming of the Capitol Building, 45% of Republicans approve – with 30% describing them as ‘patriots’. These latter groups, while representing a small proportion of the American public as a whole, are more than enough to continue to dominate party primaries – but their extremist views will continue to push away high-turnout moderate voters needed to win midterms.

Carelessly losing your Senate majority and seeing an institution you claim to revere desecrated will doubtless settle the mind of many in the Republican establishment. It will speed up their attempts to distance themselves from Donald Trump and his more crazed adherents.

But they will soon find the fantasist appeal of Trumpism is a parasite living deep within their veins, far harder to expunge than it was to embrace. After Democrats ended their century-long Faustian pact with the Southern segregationists in the 1960s, they would lose all but one election until Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992: these wounds can run deep.

The next few years will show whether the Grand Old Party can endure – or whether it has simply become a clientelist organisation – a Forza Italia to Trump’s Berlusconi, but with ever more dangerous and radicalised adherents.

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Mark Gettleson is a campaigns and election strategist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.