From the moment he came down that gaudy golden elevator at Trump Tower, Donald Trump has been the most dominant factor in GOP politics. Understanding the Trump phenomenon is less about the man himself and more about understanding what he did for the GOP base in 2016.
Trump’s crass, angry, shoot-from-the-hip style offered his base a cultural release after eight years of President Obama—the portrait of America’s growing, diverse, educated cosmopolitan elite. He legitimized xenophobia from the bully pulpit of the presidency. After all, the white working class, who are disproportionally his base, suffered under the austerity politics of the Great Recession. All the while, though, they were being told by GOP politicians that their losses were the consequence of a zero-sum economic and cultural power transfer from people like them to the people they saw in President Obama. But rather than directly contradict himself with austerity policies, Trump offered a direct rebuke to the country-club conservatism that had cost the base so dearly through the recession. He traded paeans to fiscal discipline for all-out cultural grievance.
Yet his power may be fading. In doggedly sticking to his Big Lie, Trump has inadvertently created a wedge in his own brand, as we saw in the way his endorsed candidates flailed in Georgia last week. How to have the base politics of culture war without the costs of the Big Lie? A new class of GOP aspirants are answering that question by cleaving Trump from Trumpism. And to out-Trump Trump, they are running to his right.
Remember, Trump’s Big Lie is motivated less by a grand plan to undo American democracy than the petty narcissism of a small man who lost an election. And the GOP has already paid dearly for it, starting with the two Senate seats they lost in Georgia in 2020. Beyond party elites, there’s clear evidence that the rank and file is recognizing the Big Lie ball and chain. Embrace the culture war without the culture warrior.
Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton make little effort to hide their presidential aspirations. They have used every opportunity their offices afford them to do their best Trump impression. Take Hawley’s absurd performance at the confirmation hearings of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. A Yale-trained lawyer, Hawley spent little time engaging with the would-be justice on her judicial perspective or nuances in her interpretation of the law; instead, he tried to paint her as a grotesque apologist for child pornographers ripped out of QAnon fever dreams, a “groomer” in their twisted parlance. Hawley took to Twitter before the hearings:
Judge Jackson has a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes, both as a judge and as a policymaker. She’s been advocating for it since law school. This goes beyond “soft on crime.” I’m concerned that this a record that endangers our children.
Then there are MAGA governors like Greg Abbott in Texas and Ron DeSantis in Florida. They’ve used their executive power and authorities to wage culture war on everything from immigration to abortion, LGBT rights to guns. How else can you frame Ron DeSantis’s quixotic campaign against Mickey Mouse? Or Abbott all but closing the border to commercial traffic to make a point about immigration?
Make no mistake, Trump still holds tremendous power in the GOP. His endorsees are 95–7 in all Republican primaries (including statewide, congressional, and state legislative races) this year. That 93 percent win record is hard to argue against. There are also big wins, which include author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance in Ohio, in which Trump’s endorsement was likely decisive.
And yet Vance may be more an exception than a rule, particularly when you focus on statewide races, where Trump-endorsed candidates have stumbled. In Pennsylvania, celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz is locked in a tight recount. If he loses, it’ll likely be because of the late-race surge of ultra-MAGA candidate Kathy Barnette, who ran far right of Oz.
But Trump’s losses are even more educational. Take Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s easy victory over Trump-endorsed former Senator David Purdue. It’s a prime example of the weight of Trump’s Big Lie ball and chain. Though Trump endorsed Kemp in 2018, he since recruited Purdue into the 2022 race because of Kemp’s apostasy on the Big Lie. Georgia Republicans, still smarting from the two Senate losses, sided with Kemp over Purdue by a whopping 52 points. That wasn’t the only statewide race where Trump-endorsed candidates got pummeled. His candidates for attorney general and secretary of state went down, too.
Another race in which Trump went up against a united GOP establishment also saw the Trump candidate lose. Incumbent Congressman Madison Cawthorn, who earned the ire of his GOP colleagues when he accused them of inviting him to cocaine-fueled orgies, lost his seat to a local state senator.
All of this suggests that while Trump may still be the 800-pound gorilla in the GOP, his time as the alpha may be fading. Barnette, the Pennsylvania Senate candidate who split votes with Oz, may have put it best: “MAGA does not belong to President Trump.”
The demise of Donald Trump would be a good thing for democracy. Full Stop. But that doesn’t mean that a post-Trump GOP will be good for America. Instead, beating Trump in today’s GOP likely means leaning in on the worst of Trumpism. And that’s exactly what aspirants to the GOP presidential nomination in 2024 are doing. To get there, they’re going to keep perpetrating culture war on the rest of us, stealing reproductive rights from women, bullying LGBT kids, demagoguing Black and brown people, and putting more guns in more hands despite the murders of children in their own states.