You may have forgotten, for example, the first presidential debate of the 2020 election. Trump faced off with Joe Biden in an encounter that was far, far heavier on interruptions and scoffing than any actual debate. It was fitting in many ways, including that Trump never actually formulated any real second-term agenda beyond “do the same sorts of things” and “not be a ‘socialist.” There’s no real policy debate to be had when one side doesn’t have policy proposals to defend. So we got that mess.
You may also have forgotten that there was no second debate. Trump contracted the coronavirus, and the debate commission decided to hold the event virtually, an idea that Trump rejected — presumably in large part because his campaign was so centered on the idea that life could progress as normal in the midst of the pandemic. But Trump and his party had already been attacking the commission that hosts the debates, pushing the group and its moderators into the vast and swelling pool of “others” against whom Trump was taking a stand. It was all part of the system that Trump rejected, bringing his base of support with him and, then, his party.
Trump lost the election, which you probably haven’t forgotten. But the Republican Party keeps fighting his fights anyway: against that loss, against its past policy proposals and candidates, against a largely straw-man left. The party has even renewed its battle against the debate commission, with party chair Ronna McDaniel pledging to pull future candidates from presidential debates unless the body makes changes the party demands.
It’s a fundamental rejection of politics as usual — but not in the popular, hackneyed sense of bringing fresh faces to the scene. The past year has seen a literal rejection of how presidential campaigns are run and how they are lost.
Another remarkable development in the 2020 campaign that’s since faded was that the Republican Party declined to actually formulate a policy platform. The practical reasons for this were obvious: Trump had no platform and would certainly not feel beholden to the GOP platform if it existed. So the party was torn between having to articulate what it stood for only to see its standard-bearer stomp all over it or simply not articulate what it stood for beyond “what Trump wants.” It chose the latter. Since what Trump wanted was often in direct contrast with what the party had in the past advocated, this was the path of least resistance.
One result, though, is that the party almost necessarily remains beholden to that same vague aim. Last month, I noted the increasing frequency of candidates who don’t articulate any actual platform besides “the left is bad,” a central tenet of Trumpism. On Tuesday, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) announced his bid for reelection offering only that as the rationale for having another six years in office.
A few mentions of “socialists.” A mention of “nut jobs.” But Kennedy is running as a bulwark against the opposition, not to effect any particular proposal.
Again: This was largely what Trump stood for, too. There’s an element of conservative politics that is definitionally predicated on rejecting change. But the modern right has frequently moved such rejections to the center of how they deploy power. Making America great again — a line that Kennedy works into his patter — is as much about keeping America from becoming something else as it is about moving the country back to how it was.
This shift away from defining policies and defending them to voters in favor of triggering more visceral concerns has happened as Trump and his party have rejected the idea that voters can be trusted in the first place. Trump’s aggressive refusal to actually debate Biden happened in concert with his aggressive insistence that the election itself was fundamentally tainted. By October, Trump had already invested months in false claims that rampant fraud would occur, an obvious effort to rationalize any eventual loss.
Then he lost. His response was to continue to claim that the election was stolen from him. In fact, it was to amplify those claims. He embraced a wide range of obviously bad arguments about what had occurred and demanded that his supporters — and, again trailing along behind, his party — agree. They did. Even after the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, violence inextricably linked to Trump’s claims and rhetoric, his party focused on punishing those who had dared to challenge Trump’s claims about the election being stolen — including McDaniel’s uncle Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the party’s 2012 presidential nominee — and passing new laws aimed at restricting voting, laws treating those false claims as true.
Perhaps worse, the party has also embraced changes to state laws that give partisan actors more say over evaluating the outcomes of elections. In Georgia, for example, it was Republican elected officials who acted as a backstop to Trump’s efforts to somehow wring a victory out of his loss. So other Republican officials, acting from the anonymous safety of the legislative majority, stripped power from those officials. Similar moves were made in other states, including Texas and Arizona — moves that would make it easier for a legislature to simply say the outcome of a race was invalid and should be set aside.
This is a toxic combination. Claiming that rampant fraud exists when it doesn’t undermines confidence in the actual demonstrated will of voters. Using those claims to restrict the ability of voters to vote can actually shift the results of an election. Empowering partisan legislators or bodies to overturn election results on dubious grounds abandons the idea of democratic elections in general. Not to mention the erosion in the utility of elections when a candidate offers no platform besides “I’m one of you” and comes up with reasons to avoid any substantive debate.
We’re presenting a worst-case scenario, as Republicans will be quick to point out. But it’s clear from independent analysis that the GOP has become significantly less liberal (in the “embracing open and free elections” sense) in the past decade.
Analysis from the Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg shows how that shift has occurred. It measures political parties globally on two scales: illiberalism, which is a measure of the extent to which parties reject open elections, and populism, a measure of the anti-elite and citizen-centric rhetoric deployed. (You can see some examples of the sort of things being measured in the institute’s documentation.)
The result? While the GOP was a bit more illiberal than the Democrats in 2008, it has now moved into the same sphere as parties like France’s right-wing National Front (now known as “National Rally”) and the United Kingdom’s Independence Party. A bit more movement, and it approaches Hungary’s Fidesz and Turkey’s Justice and Development parties, parties under the control of those countries’ authoritarian leaders. (United Russia, the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin, doesn’t spend much time on the populism angle, per the V-Dem analysis.)
While this is one measure, it obviously comports with the shifts noted above. It’s also a measure that ends in 2018; where the GOP would land in 2020 or 2021 is unclear. It seems obvious that the party has not gotten less illiberal in the past three years, certainly.
The question isn’t how the party has moved. The question is whether it continues in that direction, how far the momentum that has been has built carries it. The question is also how much of this is a function of Trump as an individual and whether a Republican Party at some distance from Trump would reform in ways that use its power differently.
That latter question will almost certainly remain unanswered.