The idea that the election was stolen from Trump will be maintained as a kind of foundation myth of the post-Trump era— one that Republicans will have to tiptoe around for years.
Which raises a question: Can elected Republicans, who hope to keep the flame of Trumpism alive in some more respectable form, do so without pledging fealty to this mythology?
In phone calls and conversations with allies and advisers, Trump has griped that Kemp was not pushing Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to do more to reverse President-elect Joe Biden’s victory; that Kemp was not defending the president on television; and, perhaps most indefensible in Trump’s mind, that Kemp moved forward with certifying the results of the election.
In short, Trump’s fury is rooted in the refusal of Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to invalidate their own state’s votes to illegitimately keep Trump in power.
What’s more, The Post reports Trump privately demanded that Kemp get the GOP legislature to appoint pro-Trump electors, defying the popular vote. That failed:
But numerous people with knowledge of the call said the conversation was openly hostile, with Trump effectively threatening the governor and arguing that Kemp would lose reelection if he didn’t cede to the president’s demands.
And while urging Georgia’s two GOP senators to pressure Kemp to support his efforts, Trump said this about Kemp, per a person familiar with the calls:
“Maybe I should recruit someone to run against him,” the president said in one of these calls, this person added. “Your governor is horrible. He would be nothing without me.”
In Trump’s mind, then, he is largely responsible for the success of other elected Republicans, and their debt to him was unconditional support for his effort to subvert the election. Trump is now considering extracting vengeance on Kemp by encouraging future primary challenges.
And so, if Trump gets his way, Republicans with future ambitions will worry that a failure to hew to the mythology of the stolen election could provoke his fury, complicating those ambitions.
Of course, once out of office, Trump may shrivel into a cartoonish, diminished figure with little influence over GOP politics. But he is determined for that not to happen. And if he does retain some influence, whither the future of Trumpism?
The future of Trumpism
A loose collection of writers and thinkers has been working to develop an alternative interpretation of the 2020 election, to pave the way for constructive policy debates in coming years.
In this interpretation, Trump’s loss should point to a way that some of the good-but-unrealized impulses of his presidency — the economic populism he ran on in 2016, his willingness to break with conservative economic orthodoxy dating back decades on issues such as trade — can be salvaged and built upon.
One such effort comes from American Compass, a think tank working to craft a pro-worker conservative populism, which just released a new package taking stock of the Trump years.
In their telling, Trump’s trade policies were compromised by his utter unwillingness to develop a comprehensive industrial policy (something that also exacerbated the coronavirus catastrophe and cleared space for Biden to stake out his own industrial policy agenda).
And Trump abandoned whatever economic populist promise his presidency once held by further undermining worker power and embracing a corporate tax cut that showered most benefits on the wealthy without spurring job-creating investment.
In so doing, Trump embraced policies that were deeply unpopular, as Julius Krein’s essay points out. The tax cut and the effort to gut the Affordable Care Act were among the most unpopular efforts in recent memory.
Some Republicans with 2024 ambitions are trying to make a variation of this case. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has insisted that a combination of immigration restrictionism, anti-globalist trade policies and hostility to selectively targeted concentrations of corporate power (such as Big Tech) will command the support of the “great American middle.”
There are reasons to be skeptical of such an agenda. As Eric Levitz and Mike Konczal detail, it overstates the impact of immigration on wages and doesn’t take seriously enough the harms done to wages by the lack of workers’ bargaining power or the capacity of public programs and spending to lift their fortunes.
Indeed, to my knowledge Hawley has not admitted that Trump’s tax cuts and effort to repeal the ACA sold out on his populist promises. But more to the point: How can full engagement on the question of how to develop a genuinely popular post-Trump populism happen as long as it’s a requirement to claim that Trump’s version of it actually prevailed in the election?
In this regard, it wasn’t an auspicious sign when Hawley suggested the Texas lawsuit — which attempted to overturn the voting in four states — was “significant” and deserved a chance to “play out.”
“The default posture of the post-MAGA populists is that true Trumpism has never been tried,” GOP strategist Liam Donovan told me. “But until Republicans can get beyond the myth of the stolen election, they’re stuck in a political straitjacket.”
“Republicans can’t have an honest accounting of what Trump got right unless and until they can acknowledge what he got wrong,” Donovan continued.
Which would ideally entail admitting that he lost. But Trump’s rage at Kemp suggests that he is determined to leave very little space for the GOP to have such a debate.