It’s official: The Republican Party is out on the person of Donald Trump. For real, this time. Yes, really. Absolutely — and, no, this isn’t like 2016 at all.
After Republicans, led by Trump’s own endorsements, fell short of their projected gains in the 2022 midterms, the vultures are officially circling the party’s carcass with a remarkably similar song. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s old secretary of defense, accused Trump of “looking in the mirror, claiming victimhood.” Ron DeSantis, the popular governor of Florida, told Trump to “chill out” when the ex-president announced his next campaign a few weeks ago. And Mike Pence, who’s been downright bashful about the Capitol riot since it went down two years ago, has suddenly become a fountain of recriminations about Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Even Paul Ryan, who made a point of falling off the earth when he left the speaker’s chair in 2019, lobbed a volley of invective in Trump’s direction after the Republican embarrassment of November 8. Their message couldn’t be clearer if they’d spelled it out: We think Donald Trump is a terrible politician and a worse leader. Nominate one of us for president, instead.
Fair enough. If the last month has shown us anything, it’s that Trump isn’t running a coherent political movement; he’s at the helm of a cult of personality. As long as the former president decides who the Republican Party nominates, or what issues it focuses on, those candidates and issues will be creatures of his whimsy. Americans might be angry at the current, Democratic administration over inflation; they might be nervous about a spike in crime; they might even be embarrassed by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, or frustrated with our response to the war in Ukraine. But they won’t see Republicans as the solution to any of that, as long as Republicans are reliving elections past or following the former president down his latest rabbit hole.
The case for literally anyone but Trump in 2024 will be some version of the case I made above. But that’s only one half of Republicans’ dilemma. Trump hasn’t just degraded the party’s message, or the party itself; he’s objectively degraded American politics itself.
Think about it like this: In 1991, when the neo-Nazi leader David Duke became the GOP’s standard-bearer in the Louisiana governor’s race, the national party said, “Enough.” George H.W. Bush, the Republican President of the United States, told Louisianans to vote for the Democrat instead, and that was that. In 2010, when conservative Republicans attacked a South Carolina gubernatorial candidate named Nikki Haley for her Indian ancestry and Sikh religion, U.S. Representative Joe Wilson basically said, “Enough,” and backed her in the state’s Republican primary. (Yeah. That Joe Wilson.) And, speaking of South Carolina, when a white supremacist massacred Black parishioners at one of the most historic churches in the nation, Haley herself said, “Enough.” After much hemming and hawing, she ordered the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the state’s capitol complex.
In the years since Trump became the GOP’s leader, the party has routinely nominated and supported candidates aligned with neo-Nazism, such as Doug Mastriano, Paul Gosar, and Carl Paladino. It has obsessed over America’s response to the problem of racism, branding attempts to educate Americans about race as “CRT” and banning books about race from libraries and schools. And, when someone opened fire on a gay club in Colorado Springs, almost no one inside the entire Republican Party tried to reckon with its role in the “OK Groomer” controversy — when conservatives looked at attempts to educate the public on LGBTQ issues and saw instead an attempt to “groom” kids into becoming LGBTQ themselves.
Under Trump, the party hasn’t just become haphazard, irresponsible, or deranged, problems they could fix just by kicking the ex-president to the curb. It’s turned the Overton window into a glass façade that treats paranoia, violence, and out-and-out bigotry as normal parts of the engine that makes conservative politics run. In 1991, embracing racism could lose you the support of the mainstream GOP. Today, you might lose their backing if you’re too enthusiastic about rooting it out.
Nominating a candidate not named Donald Trump would have a slim shot at reversing this damage. Ron DeSantis is building his reputation as a state-level culture warrior who singlehandedly turned Florida red; Pence and Pompeo were in the rooms where Trump moved in this direction, and they rarely seemed to issue a word of protest. The GOP probably has to move in another direction entirely, if they want to avoid being where they are right now in another ten years.
Are there candidates who represent that break in the GOP right now? Sure. Mitt Romney, for example, has softened his stance on gay rights since being elected to the Senate in Utah in 2018. He marched with Black Lives Matter protestors when George Floyd was killed, and he voted to impeach Trump over both the Capitol riot and U.S. aid to Ukraine within the space of 13 months. Nikki Haley became an icon on race for her response to the Mother Emmanuel Massacre, achieving the highest approval numbers amongst African-Americans of any Republican governor in the country. (She also reportedly blasted Trump — to his face — for his equivocations on a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.) And Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, has warned his party to modernize itself on race if they want to have a national future. (Republicans’ actual strategy to win nonwhite votes has been to insult LGBTQ folks, in the hopes that Black and Hispanic voters are homophobic enough to overlook the rest of the party’s baggage. So far, it hasn’t actually worked.)
But the next Republican nominee can’t just check the boxes I want them to check, since I’m a young Philadelphia college student who would probably think twice about voting for them, anyway. They also have to win the nomination in the first place, by demonstrating that they’re a significant break from President Joe Biden and the Democratic regime: Romney, for example, has become staunchly pro-life, even as his stance on LGBTQ issues has softened. Haley was the voice of America on the world stage for two years as our ambassador to the U.N., and is more or less a standard-issue conservative who worked for the former president. Charlie Baker can’t point to an appeal like that, but he can point to his governorship of Massachusetts as proof that he can manage an economy and get things done across the aisle in ways that the president hasn’t been able to thus far.
Of course, Republicans could have — and should have — moved on from Trump at any time in the last seven years. Of course, the Republican Party holds views on certain issues that I personally find unwise or immoral. (There’s a 7,000-word piece somewhere on here on why overturning Roe was a bad idea, even if you’re pro-life.) And, of course, both parties — Trump’s Republicans, Biden’s Democrats, and every movement in-between — are institutionally self-interested entities who chiefly use moral posturing as a means of accumulating power for themselves. But, no matter where you stand on individual issues, all of America benefits when both parties are sane, responsible, and committed to the idea of a pluralistic government where as many people as humanly possible have a voice. The GOP is not currently such a party, and a lot of the blame for that rests with Donald Trump. If the party squanders an opportunity to move on from Trump by nominating him, or a public figure who’s been molded in his image, there’s a chance that Republicans will find themselves tunnelling deeper into a dangerous national darkness — and taking the rest of us with them.