The Dead-Enders of the Reagan-Era GOP

For those of us who very much want to see Donald Trump defeated in November by the widest possible margin, the news on Friday afternoon that former Vice President Mike Pence would not be endorsing his former boss seemed encouraging. Not that Pence commands a large faction of voters. Given that he dropped out of the Republican presidential-primary race late last year after failing to rise above the lower single digits, there’s no reason to assume that he does. Still, every prominent, normie Republican who rejects Trump moves us further down the road.

But toward what?

A lot of my Never Trump allies on the center-right feel sure that Pence’s refusal to endorse the man he served for four years points the way (or “creates a permission structure,” as the fashionable parlance has it) for Republican voters to abandon the former president. By joining Nikki Haley, Mitt Romney, Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle, Bill Barr, Mark Esper, John Kelly, Mick Mulvaney, Dan Coats, John Bolton, H. R. McMaster, Liz Cheney, and a long list of additional former Cabinet members, present and former members of Congress, and state officials in opposing Trump’s bid to become president again, Pence supposedly helps guarantee Trump’s loss in November.

But is this really true? I’m quite willing to believe that some measurable number of Reaganite Republicans may be persuaded to stay home, or to vote for someone other than Trump, on Election Day. (One wonders if somewhat more of them might have been moved to do so had Pence called the post–January 6 Trump unfit for the presidency, instead of focusing on Trump’s ideological heterodoxy.) But this will doom Trump’s chances only if he fails to pick up support from different sorts of voters to replace the ones he loses from the (former) GOP mainstream. Is it possible that the very act of Republicans of the Reagan and Bush eras distancing themselves from Trump could burnish the former president’s credentials as a man seeking to transform his party in a populist direction?

[David Frum: The ego has crash-landed]

The Trump presidency was peculiar. On the one hand, this highly irregular candidate who attacked the Republican establishment and dissented from the party’s long-standing policy commitments on a range of issues managed to win the nomination and the presidency. He also brought with him to the White House people such as Steve Bannon, who actively wanted to blow up the GOP’s electoral coalition in order to transform it into a “workers’ party.”

On the other hand, these radicals were severely outnumbered in the administration by holdovers from the prior dispensation of the Republican Party. These GOP normies pretty much ran the show; their primary accomplishments were helping ensure a large corporate tax cut and the appointment of staunchly conservative federal judges and Supreme Court justices. Most of the Trump administration’s other, right-populist initiatives—such as anti-internationalism in foreign policy and funding the construction of a wall along the southern border—were blocked or slow-walked for four years.

When it came time for Trump’s reelection bid, in 2020, enough upper-income, highly educated, suburban Republicans defected to Joe Biden for Trump to lose. One path toward Republican victory this coming November would involve trying to win back those suburban voters by portraying Trump as a safe alternative to Biden, who will mainly aim to get the economy back to where it was before the coronavirus pandemic sent the country into a tailspin. If this were the Trump 2024 electoral strategy, Pence’s refusal to endorse the former president might be a serious problem for the campaign—because it would signal to like-minded voters that Trump doesn’t deserve their support.

Equally possible, though, is that Pence’s refusal to endorse hastens the GOP’s transformation into the party that Trump and Bannon had originally hoped to build eight years ago—a workers’ party that could more precisely be described as a cross-racial coalition of voters who haven’t graduated from college.

The evidence in favor of such an evolution of the GOP has been mixed over the past few election cycles, but polling so far in this cycle has pointed to something bigger going on, with significant signs of a “racial realignment” under way. If such a shift proves real in November, it could well turn out to have been enabled by Pence, Haley, and others abandoning Trump over his divergences from Reaganite conservatism. The policies favored by those old-line Reagan-Bush Republicans are no longer particularly popular with less educated voters, and the highly ideological and inauthentic way in which the old guard talks and thinks also diverges from what Trump is teaching many of these voters to look for in a political tribune: unapologetic brashness, braggadocio, and bullshit.

I’m not suggesting that this is a ticket to a Trump victory in November. All of Trump’s many liabilities remain. He’s despised by tens of millions of Americans. He’s been indicted in multiple jurisdictions. He faces dozens of felony charges. He attempted to overturn the 2020 election by spreading delusional lies about election fraud that he continues to affirm. He incited a riot that disrupted the national legislature as it tried to certify the results of the election, making him the first president in American history to attempt a coup to remain in power.

[Damon Linker: Democrats should pick a new presidential candidate now]

All of this and so much more will make the 2024 election a challenge for Trump. But the very fact that polls show the election is close, even tilting against Biden, points to a surprisingly high floor under the former president—higher than was the case in either 2016 or 2020. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s on track to win. But it does suggest that the GOP’s new electoral coalition is stable and possibly growing—even as Reaganite Republican grandees express constant outright disgust at the man who is somehow behind this stability and growth.

Whether or not Trump manages to win, we’re likely to see the continued evolution of the Republican base away from what Pence, Haley, and others would like it to be. As I’ve argued before, the relatively few voters who pine for a Reagan restoration aren’t going to find it in the present-day Republican Party. They might not fully find it in the Democratic Party of Joe Biden either. But at least there, they can make common cause with centrist factions open to the Reaganite mix of low taxes, liberal immigration, free trade, and hawkish internationalism combined with a civil religion of American exceptionalism. In the post-Trump GOP, such views are actively unwelcome (aside from the tax cuts).

That’s because a sizable portion of Americans who haven’t graduated from college, of whatever race or ethnicity, have different priorities—and, more and more, they form the base of the GOP. Those voters prefer to think of the nation as an armed camp; they want to see government power used to advance what they conceive as their own and their country’s interests, and they like that message conveyed in a muscular style of trash-talking vulgarity and humor. The old high-minded, edifying, and earnest Reagan speeches that portrayed America as a shining city on a hill, with the duty to defend democracies abroad, leave these voters cold. In this respect, “America First” really does work well as a slogan for the Republican Party now emerging, eight years after Trump first captured it.

If Trump loses in November, none of this is likely to change. The new Republican base isn’t going to reverse course and suddenly decide it loves Pence and Haley after all. The old Reaganite approach is a dead end. Instead, the party will finally begin to look seriously for a Trump successor. Ron DeSantis auditioned for that role over the past year, and it didn’t work out; the voters decided they still preferred Trump himself. DeSantis will probably try again, but he’ll be joined by many others next time. (Conspicuous among them is J. D. Vance, who’s spending much of his first term as the junior senator from Ohio testing out elements of a right-populist agenda for a post-Trump Republican Party.)

No matter who Trump’s successor turns out to be, that person will be someone who speaks the language of non-college-educated voters and views the world as they do. The GOP is now a vehicle for right-wing populism. Pence expressing dissatisfaction with this fact likely does more to confirm the completion of this transformation than it does to scuttle the new GOP’s political ambitions.

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