In recent days, a few die-hard Republicans have struggled to concoct a way for the GOP to purge itself of Trumpism’s worst excesses while retaining its political benefits. They’ve said the GOP should keep former president Donald Trump’s “policies” while acknowledging that those excesses — like the small matter of inciting violent insurrection — did go too far.
This project is running into a big obstacle: Trump himself. The former president is leaving zero doubt that if Republicans want to retain the political benefits of his movement, it must only be on his own terms. That’s terrible for all of us.
This is the real significance of the news that Trump is lashing out at Republicans and urging his donor base to send money exclusively to his organization. And this story should matter to those who hope to see the GOP pull back from its radicalization against democracy, or who believe in a new post-Trumpist “conservative populism.”
“If you donate to our Save America PAC,” Trump raged on Tuesday night, “you are helping the America First movement and doing it right.” Though Trump claimed he supports GOP organizations, he has barred them from using his image without permission.
“I do not support RINOs and fools,” Trump seethed.
This reference to “Republicans in name only” means Republicans who have been disloyal to him. As the New York Times reports:
For now, aides said, Mr. Trump’s plan is to stockpile money so he can remain a force in politics and help candidates challenging dissident Republicans like Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who supported impeaching him this year.
The money (if it’s not captured by grift) will be used to punish Republicans who held him accountable for the insurrection or otherwise crossed him. Behold what’s left of the “America First” movement.
This is a problem for Republicans charting a path forward for the post-Trump GOP, most prominently Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina.
This week, Graham declared that the Capitol riot was a “dark day.” But he added: “I want us to continue the policies that I think will make America strong. I believe the best way for the Republican Party to do that is with Trump.”
Graham is offering Republicans a way of maintaining fealty to Trump — by claiming they support his policies — while also criticizing (however mildly) his months-long effort to overturn the election and his embrace of political violence.
But Trump isn’t allowing this: Fealty to him also requires devotion to the idea that he was the victim of a historic injustice in the election, his efforts to overturn the result were a righteous attempt to reverse that injustice, and any violence was entirely incidental.
What this is really about
At bottom, this is really an argument over how Republicans can keep all those low-propensity conservative voters Trump inspired in their coalition. Graham has elsewhere suggested the GOP’s route back to power wholly depends on this. Pennsylvania Republicans loyal to Trump have as well, and they have even suggested this requires fealty to that Trumpist mythology in some form.
Graham hopes declaring Trump’s policies a towering success will keep those voters, while leaving space for Republicans to distance themselves from his most visible horrors in order to stop alienating the suburban and educated voters that helped cost the GOP power.
But Trump is declaring flat-out that he owns those voters on his own terms: He’s telling them to send him money just to keep alive that mythology.
The post-Trump GOP’s future
All this has important implications for those who hope for a deradicalized GOP or a form of “conservative populism” that Democrats might find common ground with.
You can envision a rehabilitated pro-democracy center-right around Republicans who resisted Trump, such as Cheney. But with Republicans around the country doubling down on anti-democratic and anti-majoritarian tactics as their route back to power — often citing the mythos of the stolen election to justify it — that seems far off.
Trump demanding absolute loyalty to that mythos — and state-level Republicans agreeing that this is essential — can only exacerbate that.
You can also envision a larger post-Trumpism conservative populist contingent developing among congressional Republicans, who might work with Democrats on infrastructure, strengthening supply chains and boosting working-class wages.
There should be a voting base for this: A new CNN poll shows large majorities of non-college-educated Whites favor President Biden’s rescue package and key provisions like stimulus checks. And a new Pew poll shows a majority of lower-income Republicans favor the package’s spending levels or want more.
But in the post-Trump GOP, who is speaking to those voters? As Ramesh Ponnuru points out, it’s not clear what it even means to carry the Trumpist mantle on policy: It could mean support for massive corporate tax cuts or immigration restrictions or trade wars.
That leaves Trump-style grievance-stoking and mythologizing about the stolen election as the remaining talismans of Trumpism. As Ponnuru noted, “every argument inside the party ends up being sucked into the vortex of an argument about Trump.”
It’s no accident that Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), conservative populism’s chief standard-bearer, decided that the way to seize that Trumpist magic was to seize a lead role in undermining Biden’s electors in Congress.
Nor did Trump himself help matters when he told a conservative audience that “Trumpism” means “low taxes and eliminating job-killing regulations” (the old GOP big-donor-friendly economic orthodoxy) as well as moving toward closed borders.
It’s hard to be optimistic right now if you hope for a GOP that can work in good faith with Democrats and liberals — or even enter into good-faith policy arguments with them.