6 November 2020

Reports of the death of the Republican Party have been greatly exaggerated


Many obituaries of the Republican Party have been written in the last four years.

According to a typical example, a New York Times editorial written two weeks ago titled “RIP GOP”, the party’s ideology “has been reduced to a slurry of paranoia, white grievance and authoritarian populism. Its governing vision is reactionary, a cross between obstructionism and owning the libs. Its policy agenda, as defined by the party platform, is whatever President Trump wants — which might not be so pathetic if Mr. Trump’s interests went beyond ‘Build a wall!’”

The election results tell a different story. Contrary to the claim made in the title of a recent anti-Trump book — that “everything Trump touches dies” — the Republican Party is alive and well.

Have Republican politicians humiliated themselves with their defenses of a man unfit to be president? Absolutely. (And many continue to do so even after Trump has gone from unlikely winner to sore loser litigating a conspiracy theory.)

Do voters mind? Apparently not.

With the votes still being counted, one of the striking trends already identifiable is that down-ballot Republicans performed better than Trump himself. Joe Biden is on course to win the White House, but Republicans look very likely to retain the Senate and have so far gained six seats in the House of Representatives. In leaked remarks from a Democratic caucus call on Thursday, Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Congresswoman from Virginia, called Tuesday a “failure, not a success” in Congressional terms. According to the zero-sum rules of Washington, that makes it something of a victory for Republicans.

Ahead of this election, many were hoping for finality: a firm rejection not just of Trump but everything associated with him. Instead, voters have delivered a more ambiguous result. A rejection of President Trump, yes, but not the wholesale rejection of the party who hitched themselves to his wagon.

Provisional and early exit polls don’t suggest a Republican Party reduced to a rump of angry left-behind whites. They suggest a party that has considerably more appeal to non-white voters than many Democrats thought possible. Again, it’s too soon to say definitively — and after their massive miss on Tuesday, all polls deserve to be taken with a pinch of salt — but Trump looks like he might have put together the most diverse group of GOP voters in half a century. In south Florida, Republicans won over many more Cuban Americans than they did four years ago. In Texas’s heavily Hispanic Zapata County on the Mexican border, Hillary Clinton won by 30 points in 2016. This time, the county opted for Trump, pointing to a trend that extends beyond the peculiarities of local politics.

These results are best understood as an opportunity not a success. Republicans who welcome the realignment that means theirs is the party of non-college educated Americans should wonder how much more diverse their base would be were it not for Trump’s many egregiously racialised remarks. They may also look at America’s cities, which are now overwhelmingly Democratic, and wonder if Republicanism shouldn’t have more appeal in these centres of opportunity and prosperity.

For years, Democrats have assumed that demographics would doom their opponents. They are still waiting for the coming Democratic majority. And it may never come. “White ethnic” voters’ backgrounds became less determinative of party support over time; the same thing looks like it is happening, however slowly, with Hispanic and Asian-American voters. That is healthy for American society — and very good news for the GOP.

To be sure, the GOP will be an uneasy coalition. A loud Trumpian faction will waste years harping about the stolen 2020 election, in which Big Tech, the media and vote counters in Democratic cities conspired to take from Trump the four more years to which he was entitled. It is baseless nonsense and if you’re bored of it now, imagine how tedious the whingeing will be in four years’ time. More generally, stylistic differences between Trumpian populists locked in an all-out culture war all the time, and a less tribal, less online moderate wing will outlast Trump. But it’s important to remember that such a dynamic existed before Trump descended the golden escalator. The party of John McCain was also the party of Sarah Palin.

Meanwhile, differences on substantive policy are well within the normal range of views that can be accommodated by a national political party.  Indeed, the worldview represented by Trump, with its hostility to immigration, foreign intervention and globalisation, is a well-established strain of Republican thinking. In office, the Trump administration’s limited achievements included the kind of deregulation and tax reform that libertarian-leaning Republicans wanted. Economically liberal Republicans can coexist with economic populists in much the same way the Democratic Party manages to find room for moderates like West Virginian Senator Joe Manchin and democratic socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The upshot is that if Republicans learn the right lessons from the difference between Trump’s (all but certain) defeat and the stronger showing from other GOP candidates — the broad appeal of the party’s pro-growth, pro-worker patriotic message; the importance of competence and character — stands to win big in the future.

The Republican Party’s bill of health is far from clean. Just look at the way in which many of its leaders are indulging the president’s lost cause conspiracy theory. Or consider the shameful fact that it has sent a QAnon supporter to Congress. But this election has disproven the claim that the fate of the GOP and the man who engineered what Jared Kusnher called a “hostile takeover” four years ago are inextricably linked. Trump is set to become the second one-term president in the last 40 years. His party’s future, by contrast, looks a lot less gloomy.

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

Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic.

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