Way back in the days after the 2012 election, the last Republican presidential defeat, all the conventional wisdom in American politics converged on a simple idea: The G.O.P. was doomed as a national institution unless it became, in effect, a moderate party of the business class, stiff-arming social conservatives and wooing Hispanic voters by promising more liberal immigration laws.
Against this consensus, a few observers made dissenting points: First, a lot of working-class white voters who tilted Republican had stayed home amid Mitt Romney’s business-class campaign in 2012, and second, the Hispanic vote was hardly a single-issue-voting, pro-immigration monolith. So it was as easy to imagine Republicans surviving in a changing country by simply becoming more populist on economic issues as it was to imagine them moving in the more libertarian direction favored by the party’s donors and consultants.
After two national elections with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, those dissenters can claim a lot of vindication. For the second presidential cycle in a row, notwithstanding plague, economic crisis and his own immense faults, Trump was a competitive candidate with a coalition that was more blue-collar and nonwhite than the Republican vote in 2012. Relative to four years ago, he turned out even more whites without college degrees in many states (even as his share of the white working class may have slipped a little bit overall) and increased his support from African-Americans and in heavily Hispanic areas — not just in the Cuban parts of Florida, but in regions as different as southern Texas and Lawrence, Mass.
In those trends, you can see the foundation of a possible after-Trump conservative majority that is multiethnic and middle class and populist, an expansive coalition rather than a white and aging rump. And the competitiveness of the existing Trump coalition, the fact that he wasn’t simply routed as the polls had predicted and his party came through the election in better-than-expected shape, makes it less likely that his would-be successors will try to rewind the clock to 2012. Instead, they will promise to reassemble his populist coalition as a first step, rather than trying to rebuild around the now-Democratic-trending mass upper class.
But if Trump’s coalition was competitive, Trump himself was defeated, no less than Romney in 2012. So the question for Republican politicians auditioning to be Trumpists after Trump is whether they actually have a plan to (with apologies to President-elect Joe Biden) build back bigger, to make the right-populist coalition the majority it could be rather than the strong minority it is.
The optimist’s take is that the way to do this is clear: Trump was at his most unpopular when he behaved grotesquely and ceded policymaking to the Republican old guard, so his would-be successors need to act less like tinpot tyrants, eschew the ranting and the insults, and also make good on some of the policy promises Trump left by the wayside. A populism 2.0 that doesn’t alienate as many people with its rhetoric, that promises more support for families and domestic industry, that accepts universal health care and attacks monopolies and keeps low-skilled immigration low, all while confronting China and avoiding Middle East entanglements and fighting elite progressivism tooth and nail — there’s your new Republican majority.
But there are other possibilities. One is that some of the voters who turned out for the G.O.P. in the last two presidential cycles were drawn in by Trump’s celebrity charisma as much as by any of his policy arguments — that if he alienated suburban women with his finger-in-your-eye behavior, it also helped elevate his appeal with the country’s disaffected blocs. In which case you can’t just shave off the rough edges and expect a different politician to claim the same support. Rural white voters in Wisconsin who felt forgotten by both parties, or Latino men around Miami alienated by wokeness, or for that matter the rebellious grassroots conservatives who backed Trump’s 2016 primary campaign — do any of them respond the same way to a Republican who has picked up the language of populism but comes across as a stuffed shirt rather than a tough guy, a nerd rather than a tycoon, a politician rather than a star?
Then even if it were possible for another Republican to claim and expand his coalition, it’s not clear that Trump himself will let that happen. For one thing, he might run again, and he will certainly keep that possibility open — which means all his would-be successors will need to jockey for his favor, or at least avoid blasts of wrath from Mar-a-Lago. It’s always been clear that Trump would nurture a stab-in-the-back narrative should he lose; now that we know that the race was genuinely close in several key states, his stolen-election narrative may be potent enough to push conservatism toward the fever swamps and away from a constructive populism, a Trumpism that can win.
So Trump will exit the presidency with a complicated and uncertain legacy — as both the man who opened the way to a possible populist majority, and (for the next four years, at least) one of the biggest potential obstacles for Republicans who want to tread that path.
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