The future of the Republican party

Trump's impact on the US Republican party will be felt for a long time. [Getty]
11 min read
Washington, D.C.
02 July, 2021

Every four years, the same question comes up. What will happen to the Republican party? Can it survive in its current state?

Over the years, a number of predictions have failed to come true. Common forecasts have cited demographic shifts, such as young idealistic voters growing up as well as a growing Hispanic population; America's lack of universal healthcare and other basic safety nets; and an underfunded low-performing education system that generally only benefits the wealthy and privileged; as catalysts to make the Republican party rethink its platforms and messaging.

And every four years, the party, after a few weeks of speculation - following a presidential loss or an electoral win that did not carry the popular vote - somehow comes together in a united front and continues with its traditional messaging: advocating for small government and low taxes, patriotism, and law-and-order.

"Trump's staying power has repeatedly defied expectations"

The Trump Era continues

This time, it is different. First of all, the party has been shaped by Donald Trump, whose unorthodox approach to politics continues to perplex Democrats, more recently prominent fellow Republicans, as well as professional observers.

"The numbers fly in the face of any predictions that Donald Trump's political future is in decline. By a substantial majority, Republicans: firstly believe the election was stolen from him, secondly want Trump to run again, and thirdly, if they can't vote for Trump, prefer someone who agrees with him," Tim Malloy, an analyst with Quinnipiac University Poll, told The New Arab.

Like the once-every-four-years incorrect prediction of the demise or repurposing of the Republican party, Trump's staying power has repeatedly defied expectations.

His election loss didn't break his popularity among his base. His ban from social media lessened his news coverage, but it hasn't discouraged Republican politicians from regularly travelling to Mar-a-Lago to solicit his support. Even the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol was not enough for ten-needed Senate Republicans to vote for impeachment or to create a commission to investigate the event. These reluctant votes are an important symbol of the power Trump continues to wield in the party.

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A lot will depend on whether or not Trump decides to run in 2024. According to recent Quinnipiac polls, 66% of Republicans say they would like to see him run, and 85% say they would prefer to see candidates running for elected office that mostly agree with Donald Trump.

On 1 July, Trump is a close second (after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis) on the betting site Predictit, following the announcement this week of the Trump Organisation being charged with tax fraud, though still a continuing real possibility that he can affect everyday strategies in the party.

"They're being held hostage by Trump's hold on the party," Vincent Jungkunz, associate professor of critical race theory, political theory, and American politics at Ohio University, tells The New Arab. "They don't want to alienate Trump voters."

In spite of Trump's apparent unusual grasp of power over the Republican party, it is unclear if it can be replicated beyond the primaries in future general elections (though few predicted that he would have won the 2016 Republican primary).

This appeared to be a concern for the party in the recent Virginia primary for the governor's race. Instead of holding an election with registered voters, the party's delegates elected Glenn Youngkin, after polls suggested that Amanda Chase, an ardent Trump supporter, who attended his 6 January rally on Capitol Hill, had a good chance of winning. She has since filed a lawsuit against the state party.

It is also easy to forget that amid the daily news of audits eight months after Joe Biden's presidential victory, the members of the Republican party establishment who oversaw the vote counts maintain that the numbers are correct. Georgia's Republican secretary of state and his staff received death threats after announcing the results of the recount. None of the state audits have reversed any results.

"They don't want to alienate Trump voters"

These efforts could very well energise the Democrats. The recent Republican Arizona audit efforts significantly raised the profile of Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, leading her to announce a bid for governor. 

Back in Georgia, a video three months ago of state Rep Park Cannon, a black woman, being arrested for knocking on the door of Governor Brian Kemp, went viral. "If I wanted to turn out black voters, I would show that scene," Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, tells The New Arab.

The price of loyalty

Nevertheless, loyalty to Trump remains a powerful force within the party, and disloyalty can be met with punishment. Liz Cheney, who lost her committee chair seat for vocally rejecting Trump's claims of winning the 2020 election, is a recent example of this.

This test of loyalty is not necessarily related to policy. Cheney's replacement, Elise Stephanik, has a far less conservative voting record. But she has stood by Trump in his bid to reverse the 2020 presidential result.

Republican Liz Cheney (R-WY) talks to reporters after House Republicans voted to remove her as conference chair on May 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. [Getty]
Republican Liz Cheney (R-WY) talks to reporters after House Republicans voted to remove her as conference chair on May 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. [Getty]

Early outspoken critics of Trump - such as his opponents in the 2016 Republican primary, Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio - appear to have made the political calculation to join the Trump wing of the party.

"Everyone is holding their cards close to their vest," Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, tells TNA.

He predicts, "As we get further away from the 2020 election, Trump will have less power within the party. The leadership will start to distance itself from him."

Nevertheless, this display of loyalty is unusual some eight months after the election.

Deference to Trump is extending to the nascent Republican primary campaigns. A recent report by Politico found that Republican hopefuls for the 2024 presidential election, such as Tom Cotton and Nikki Haley, are cautiously and quietly building campaign strategies designed not to upset Trump - until he has announced if he will run or not.

"As much as Trump expects loyalty from others, he does not necessarily reciprocate"

But these calculations of loyalty might not be viable in the long run. For as much as Trump expects loyalty from others, he does not necessarily reciprocate.

Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman accused of child sex trafficking, is learning that Trump is not standing by him as the walls appear to be closing in.

On his "America First" road trip with Marjorie Taylor Greene two months ago, his rhetoric sounded increasingly extreme, as he told a crowd of supporters that the right to bear arms could be used to overthrow the government. It is possible he is trying to regain Trump's approval or simply trying to appeal to the Republican base.

Similarly, My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, who remains a Trump loyalist, as he continues to publicly challenge the 2020 presidential election results, was in May denied entry to a Republican event to which he had been invited. Two weeks ago, he said he'd lost $7 million in a failed mask venture touted by Trump at the beginning of the pandemic. Rudy Giuliani, Trump's former personal lawyer, who has been even more outspoken about the election results, has also been distanced by the party and the former president. Last week, he lost is license to practice law in New York, due to false statements he made when trying to overturn the presidential election results.

These results remain a point of contention among ardent Trump supporters, many of whom believe that he will be reinstated as president in August, moving up the time of his rumoured reinstatement after the other two times passed. At an America First rally in May at a retirement community in Florida, it was reported that Greene asked the audience, "Tell me, who is your president?" to which the crowd yelled back, "Trump!" Gaetz was quoted as saying, “Today, we send a strong message to the weak establishment in both parties: America First isn’t going away.”

"Trump is their white saviour"

The "America First" tour shares its name with the caucus that Greene had attempted to form in April, which is described as being based on Anglo-Saxon political traditions, an idea that was quickly met with disapproval by many Democrats and Republicans alike as xenophobic.

Nevertheless, Greene and Gaetz believed it would appeal to their base, much of which includes Q-Anon, a discredited conspiracy theory group that believes, among many other falsehoods, that Democrats and Hollywood operate paedophilia rings and drink babies' blood.

"That's the founding conspiracy of the United States - white identity and supremacy. It's the lie that white people are superior," Jungkunz tells TNA. "Trump is their white saviour."

Playing to the bases

In the midst of the party veering to the right to energise the base, members of the establishment are trying to find ways to bring it back to its more moderate form.

In April, more than 100 members of the Republican establishment, many of them former elected officials, wrote a letter in which they threatened to form a third party without Trump. The news, which might have at another time made headlines for at least a week, quickly faded behind other stories. Trump, himself, has stated he would not start a third party.

The group of largely the same members, calling themselves the Renew America Movement, re-emerged again last week to announce that it would be trying to impact the 2022 midterms, potentially by recruiting candidates, including independents. They describe themselves as politically homeless, though they have stopped short of taking concrete steps to form a new party.

Is the Republican party destined to succumb to its most extreme elements? Or can more moderate, openly anti-Trump politicians have a voice?

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In the two elections before Trump, Republicans ran relatively moderate candidates against Obama. The losses of John McCain and Mitt Romney could have been an indication to the party that it should instead lean into its base. Once Trump won, the party took the hint.

"I really don't think we're going to go back to the Republican party pre-Trump," says Coleman. "There were definitely electoral trends going on before him, and he really sped things up."

A similar pattern can be observed with the Democrats, as the left-wing of the party is increasingly running candidates in primaries to oust moderate incumbents, as seen with the victory of the "squad" in 2018. Aside from pushing through their agendas, the idea of these left-wing candidates is to energise the base, thereby increasing voter turnout. In Michigan, Rashida Tlaib's growing voter engagement in her district arguably helped deliver the state to Biden.

infographic - US 2020 Elections Final Results

Voter turnout and structural advantages

But for Republicans, high voter turnout is generally bad news. It depends on its base of older white voters, who have the time and resources to vote on election day, to deliver wins for Republicans in swing districts.

Possibly with this scenario in mind, since November, Republican lawmakers have introduced more than 250 bills creating barriers to voting. Those behind these moves claimed that they were trying to protect election security. Civil rights groups describe it as voter disenfranchisement.

Voter turnout will also depend on migration and redistricting. Following the 2020 census, solidly Democratic California lost an electoral vote, while Florida, Georgia, and Texas all gained votes due to migration. Though many of the new residents to these states are from California and the Northeast, as well as immigrants, all of whom would statistically be voting Democratic in higher numbers, they could be affected by voting restrictions.

Barriers to voting, however, cannot be blamed for all of the Democrats' lack of gains in places like Texas. In the Rio Grande Valley, where Hillary Clinton performed well in 2016, Trump made gains in 2020 of around 30 points in some counties.

"Can a party get ahead by working the system instead of developing new policies?"

The Rustbelt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, historically a Democratic-leaning cluster of swing states, tend to follow the same voting patterns. Ohio, which was consistently a swing state until the election of Trump, is now close to being reliably Republican. The party now has its eye on turning the rest of the region red.

An important part of this work is securing Republican majorities in the state legislatures, which goes back to the issue of vote counting. The party that controls the state government controls the mechanics of the elections. Though in this past election the Republican state governments stayed true to the process - in some cases at great personal risk - there is no guarantee of it in the future.

Can a party get ahead by working the system instead of developing new policies? In this case, it appears to be a possibility - or at least the current strategy. This includes voting restrictions, maintaining the filibuster (the super-majority of 60 required to pass bills), and redistricting.

"One of the Republicans' long-term structural advantages is they can win in the electoral college without winning the popular vote," says Coleman.

"We're at a point now where Democrats can win the popular vote by three to four percentage points and Republicans can still win the election [through the electoral college] as long as they can stay competitive in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. If they can keep Trump's numbers with Hispanics, they can lock down Texas."

As for the scenario that many Democrats predict every four years - that the country's shifting demographics will turn the political tide in their favour, Jungkunz doesn't see expect that to happen anytime soon. With or without Trump, he expects the current messaging and strategies of the Republican party to continue for the next 20 to 30 years.

"I don't think there's been any change in the public since the Capitol [6 January insurrection]," he says. "It could get worse before it gets better."

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews