Donald Trump’s critics are pointing to Tuesday’s primary results in Georgia, where his favored statewide candidates were routed, as evidence of the former president’s waning influence in the Republican Party. Yet Trump’s supporters could just as easily point to his backing of J.D. Vance, who came from behind to win the Ohio GOP’s Senate nomination, and Mehmet Oz, who is ahead by a hair in Pennsylvania’s Republican primary.
For those looking to assess Trump’s potential strength in a 2024 presidential primary, his 2022 endorsement scorecard surely has some predictive value. But just as important is understanding how the political game itself has changed in recent years. Even without consulting polls or primaries, it’s clear that the internal Republican Party conditions that enabled Trump’s 2016 rise are no longer in place.
Trump, in his first run for president, saw a gap between the GOP establishment and a critical mass of voters and rushed to fill it. After Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, party leaders resolved to move toward an immigration accommodation with Democrats, but many GOP voters maintained restrictionist views. Trump also exposed dissatisfaction with the party’s foreign policy under the last Republican president, attacking George W. Bush’s Iraq War without being penalized by Republican primary voters. Finally, Trump offered a more confrontational and ruthless approach to the culture war and to press criticism than American politics had seen in decades.
These political and stylistic differences between Republican Party custom and the preferences of its voters powered Trump’s rise to party leader. But in the half decade since his election, the distance between GOP elites and the conservative electorate has narrowed substantially (for better and for worse). Some version of nationalistic and populist politics is now a condition of entry into the Republican Party — and certainly its 2024 presidential primary. That was emphatically not the case in 2016, when former Florida governor Jeb Bush kicked off the race as the favorite.
In part because of Trump’s influence reshaping the GOP, his distinctiveness within it is fading. This was evident in the Georgia gubernatorial primary. In the absence of a significant philosophical or governing disagreement with incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, former senator David Perdue could distinguish himself only by his adherence to the former president’s narcissistic 2020 election vendetta. Republican voters, who rejected Perdue by a 52-point margin, were not impressed.
Richard Hofstadter, a mid-20th-century historian of American populism, wrote that “third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.” The Trump movement in 2016 — with its attacks on both party establishments — in many ways resembled a third party. If Trump has no sting left, Hofstadter’s analysis helps explain why.
“Major parties have lived more for patronage than for principles,” Hofstadter explained. They are risk-averse organizations designed for stable governance. Populists and third parties, meanwhile, are not geared to govern, but to “agitate, educate ... and supply the dynamic element in our political life.” These two forces — steady and disruptive — influence one another, so that when “a third party’s demands become popular enough, they are appropriated by one or both of the major parties and the third party disappears.”
That process could already be reducing the demand for Trump as a political figure. His approaches to foreign policy, immigration and the culture wars have been at least partly appropriated by most national GOP politicians. Even Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a purple-state Republican with suburban appeal, ran aggressively and unapologetically against the cultural left in 2021. By contrast, the Georgia primaries show that Trump has been unable to entrench his myths about the 2020 election — which are rejected by the electorate at large — within the GOP.
Winning a competitive 2024 primary would take a kind of political entrepreneurship beyond what Trump has exhibited so far. In a GOP field geared toward the preferences of populist voters, Trump would struggle more than in 2016 to find a politically underserved constituency — and his efforts to do so could lead him further into the conspiracy fever swamps, which would fragment his support.
Then there are the attacks that would come flying from new directions if Trump’s opponents played for keeps. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could outflank Trump on pandemic policies, pointing out that his state resisted shutdowns that the Trump administration recommended in 2020. Competitors could also charge that Trump shares blame with President Biden for inflation, for both picking Jerome H. Powell as chairman of the Federal Reserve and supporting massive spending during the pandemic.
When it comes to the ability to insult, shock and polarize, Trump likely can’t be matched in a GOP primary. But the Georgia results show that Republican voters won’t simply follow his orders by default. If Trump runs in 2024, he’d be squaring off against a major party remade in his movement’s own image. That’s a testament to Trump’s success as a third-party-style political entrepreneur — but it might also blunt the force of his appeal as a major party leader.