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In the nearly six months since Donald Trump left office, we’ve heard two competing answers to the question of his place in the Republican Party and its ongoing efforts to undermine American democracy.
According to the view favored by Never Trump Republicans, including Liz Cheney and her admirers, not to mention lots of liberal pundits, Trump is politically toxic to the GOP. This was true in 2020, but it’s become even more so since the horrifying events of Jan. 6, which appalled millions of Americans, including some of his own voters. For that reason, a future in which Trump maintains strong influence over the party, let alone one in which he wins its presidential nomination in 2024, is one in which Republicans are bound to lose the presidency. Which helps to explain why the party seems so fixated on installing anti-democratic means of gaining and holding power.
Then there’s the view favored by many elected Republicans, donors, and consultants who have remained wedded to the party without becoming full-on Trump apologists, and even some centrist pundits like myself. In this view, Trump brought lots of new people into the GOP, increasing his vote share between 2016 and 2020, and improving his margins with Black and Hispanic voters. This shows that a candidate who followed Trump’s lead in appealing to these new voters without repelling more traditional Republican supporters (especially in the suburbs) could put the party on the path to outright victory, winning popular vote pluralities and maybe even majorities.
Right now, the second answer is somewhat restraining Republicans from even more strongly supporting vote suppression and strategies for rejecting the outcome of elections. That’s because the argument is democratically optimistic, suggesting the GOP can win the presidency by trying to win over voters and encouraging them to show up on Election Day.
But what if the second answer proves to be wrong?
Because it just might be. And that could portend an even stronger shift in an anti-democratic direction for the GOP.
The theory, again, is that it should be possible for a Trumpy Republican nominee — think someone like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — to retain the voters who flocked to Trump while persuading a good number of those who were repulsed by his personality and behavior as president to come back to the party. This would be the best of both worlds, combining the electorate won by Mitt Romney in 2012 with the Trumpfied electorate of 2020. The candidate would do well in the suburbs, maximize turnout in rural areas and the post-industrial Midwest, and continue to appeal to Hispanic and (to a lesser extent) Black voters.
It makes perfect sense, but only so long as you assume that the primary problem facing the party is winning back the Romney voters who fled to the Democrats out of loathing for Trump. But it could be the case that attempting to solve this problem immediately creates another of equal importance — namely, how to retain Trump-loving voters when Trump isn’t on the ticket.
If Trump runs in 2024, “his” voters will be maximally motivated, though he will face the same problem that plagued him in the suburbs in 2020. On the other hand, if Trump doesn’t run in 2024, enthusiasm for a post-Trump GOP in the suburbs could be matched by a collapse of excitement among his ardent supporters. Having lived under Trump for four years and reveled in his merciless attacks on their common enemies, they may now accept no substitutes.
Which means there may be no way out of the following conundrum: Some Republicans hate Trump’s guts and will never vote for him, while others adore him and will never vote for anyone else.
If that’s the case, then the GOP could be facing a situation in which, short of a genuine catastrophe for the Biden administration, it simply can’t win the presidency with a plurality of the popular vote, let alone an outright majority.
This isn’t quite the view held by Cheney and her admirers, who insist that Trump is a dead end but that someone like herself, who harkens back to a GOP that last won a national election 17 year ago, could prove more viable. The truth may well be that no single candidate can unite today’s party with sufficient enthusiasm to win the White House.
Republicans can’t win with Trump, but they may also be unable to win without him.
In such a situation, the GOP would face two paths forward: The prospect of losing the presidency for several election cycles as the party figures out a successful new platform and coalition — or attempting to win dirty, which means anti-democratically.
There are numerous signs that the GOP is already laying the groundwork for the latter. Such efforts will increase dramatically if the party’s efforts to find an alternative to Trump fall short in 2024.