When well-functioning political parties lose elections, they adapt. They regroup and reform, changing tack to win back the voters that they lost. But the Republican Party in the Trump era is dysfunctional, warped by increasingly extreme displays of fealty to a single man. As a result, the least likely outcome is for Republicans to take a long look in the mirror. Instead, the party will probably just double down on its toxic, losing strategy to stick with Trumpism.
There are three main explanations for such self-destructive behavior.
First, like it or not, President Trump is extremely popular among the Republican base. According to Gallup polling, his approval rating during 2020 averaged 91.4 percent among self-identified Republicans. Other presidents have enjoyed popularity within their own parties. What’s different about Trump is the intensity of that popularity among the most devoted partisans. He has inspired a level of zealous loyalty among a core group of diehards within the GOP that is extremely unusual for a politician.
Trump and his campaign frequently pointed to indicators such as boat parades as evidence that they were on track to defeat Joe Biden. That was as wrong as it was statistically illiterate. (Biden won 81 million votes with small rallies and no aquatic parades.) But those extreme displays of devotion to Trump — along with big crowds at feverish rallies and oversized Trump flags on pickup trucks — are a unique political phenomenon.
Being a Trump supporter is a political identity in itself in a way that wasn’t remotely true for George W. Bush, or John McCain, or Mitt Romney. That dynamic, combined with the cult of personality that Trump has successfully built around himself, means that the Republican base increasingly defines itself by identity, not a policy platform. That makes it much harder to nimbly reposition a party after losing elections.
Second, ambitious Republican politicians have correctly discerned that, because the base is so Trumpian, the only way to break out as a national star in 2021 is to mimic Trump. To get coveted media slots on Fox News (or for the more extreme figures, One America News or Newsmax), Republicans need to out-Trump each other. This largely explains why so many dangerous opportunists in the party (who profess to be constitutional conservatives) tried to overturn the results of the election in precisely the way Trump has suggested.
Two of the senators who led that charge were Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). They aren’t fools. They know Trump lost. But they’re betting that they can only win over Trumpian diehards by catering to their authoritarian whims. It’s bad for the party’s electoral prospects (as Georgia showed on Tuesday night) but good for ambitious cynics who yearn to become rising Republican stars.
To make matters worse, competitive Republican primaries have created a ratcheting effect, in which candidates pander to the Trumpian base in increasingly extreme ways to separate themselves from one another. Rookie Republicans who want to elbow their way into local, state or national politics can’t help but learn a depressing lesson. It’s mostly impossible to win a Republican primary while openly running against Trumpism. Just ask former senator Jeff Flake, former representative Mark Sanford or former representative Justin Amash.
Third, for a party to reform after an electoral defeat, the party’s members need to believe that their candidates actually lost. Instead, Trump’s lies about the election have wrongly convinced most Republican voters that they didn’t really lose, but that the election was somehow stolen from them. According to a recent poll, only one in four Republicans say they trust the results of the November elections.
On top of that delusion, an alarming swath of Republican voters have started to base their political worldview fully within a fantasy world comprised of conspiracy theories like QAnon. Trump has amplified so much disinformation that many Republican voters view politics through a Trumpian funhouse mirror, distorting reality and inverting the truth. The combination of victimhood narratives, a false belief that they actually won the elections they lost, and the malignant spread of conspiratorial thinking are all impediments to genuine soul-searching for the post-Trump Republican Party.
After the insurrection at the Capitol this week, Republican leaders recognize that, to win, they must divorce the party from Trump, ramp down the racism and put a lid on the insidious authoritarianism that Trump solidified in the party. But a large chunk of their voters doesn’t want reform and may even punish those who advocate it. What they want is Trump 2.0. As a result, don’t expect the latest electoral defeats in Georgia to change much about Republican politics, at least in the medium-term.
On Jan. 20, Trump will leave the White House. But he will still cast a long shadow on the party that he has remade in his image.