The Republican party is in ‘the wilderness’, as insufferable political analysts describe the wholly normal phenomenon of a party being out of power. Yet, compared to their last camping trip in 2008, Republicans should have countless reasons for optimism.
Joe Biden may not last until 2024. Even if he does, he is hardly a transformational leader, never mind all the newspaper editorials calling him a 21st-century Franklin D. Roosevelt. Republicans still hold most governorships and state legislatures. After redistricting, the Democrats’ tiny House majority could vanish entirely. Joe Manchin has scuttled any plans to change the filibuster; by extension he has destroyed Democratic hopes to entrench themselves in power by admitting new states, packing the courts, amnestying illegal immigrants or passing national ‘voting rights’ legislation.
The border is a disaster, cities are still rioting, crime is still up. Stimulus checks may be turbocharging the economy for now, but any hint of a recession would badly hurt the Democrats. Republicans ought to be coiling up, eager to spring back into power.
The party really is lost, though; its erstwhile champion cut adrift. Five years ago, Donald Trump’s raw political instincts made an extraordinary force in American history. Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz had spent entire lives plotting a gradual ascent to the presidency. Trump smashed both while apparently having no plan whatsoever. The improvisational element was a key part of the appeal.
Now, deprived of office and stripped of his Twitter account, Trump seems a diminished figure. It’s hard to believe that the being who lurks in Mar-a-Lago is the same man who made the Republican and Democratic establishments tremble and quake. Just three months out of power have reduced him to a shadow on the political stage. He issues press releases that read like the tweets he can no longer make. He calls for corporate boycotts that no one will follow. He refuses to let the GOP use his name to fundraise, then backtracks, torn between a desire to hurt Republicans and to hog both credit and the spotlight.
Trump’s speech on April 10 to a collection of donors at Mar-a-Lago was a case in point. He fumed at Mitch McConnell (a ‘dumb son of a bitch’) and his long-suffering vice president Mike Pence (a ‘disappointment’). When Trump was ascendant, these shocking lines felt transgressive. Now they sound bitter.
He blamed McConnell and Pence for not toppling America’s constitutional system to keep him in power. He’s been prattling on about the election since November. He has, regrettably, turned into what all his worst critics said he would become in defeat: a myopic, self-centered maniac obsessed with a ‘stolen’ election and who to blame for his defeat.
Trump’s decay should create opportunities for other Republicans to establish their leadership claims. Instead, potential Trump heirs seem to be collapsing even faster than the ex-president. Matt Gaetz, the Pensacola Congressbro, was often compared to Trump. But almost nobody quite appreciated just how similar the two men are. Gaetz, the son of a rich man, has a memorable hairdo and a brilliant knack for getting on TV. He’s sharp enough to grasp the realignment that presaged Trump’s ascent, and has quickly established himself as one of the most anti-war and anti-immigration members of the Trump caucus.
But Gaetz also shared the 45th president’s propensity to be hamstrung by his own powerful appetites. No evidence has been produced supporting spectacular insinuations of human trafficking, but even if he escapes an indictment, Gaetz’s persona has been tarnished by the attention directed to his highly active sex life.
Donald Trump was sui generis in his ability to survive even the most sordid revelations. Only time will tell if Gaetz has the same magical abilities, but the odds are against him. The fact that Trump himself has refused to support him in his hour of need suggests he may not last.
Another potential Trump heir, South Dakota’s COVID superstar Kristi Noem, has suffered thanks to her handling of the party’s grassroots backlash against transgenderism. Noem vetoed a bill keeping biological males out of girls’ sports, apparently mortified at the potential backlash from the NCAA and Amazon if she didn’t do so. All at once, in many eyes, Noem transformed into something Republican voters have seen quite often: a GOP politician terrified at the prospect that their own party’s agenda might be adopted. There’s no going back, however. If Trump and his heirs seem weakened, the revival of the old pre-Trump establishment is a fantasy. The Bush-era party remains as gruesomely unpopular as ever. Their indifference to the immigration issue only looks more destructive as nearly 200,000 migrants cross the border every month. Their enthusiasm for big business now seems suicidal as mega corporations embrace intense identity politics and the Democratic agenda for voting reform. The party that once put tax cuts above any other issue is now clamoring for punitive hikes and revoking Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption. As Gramsci said, of a very different world, ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born’.
Republicanism is unmoored. Thanks to the weakness of the Democrats, as described by Daniel McCarthy, the party might enjoy some success in the coming years. But the American right is confused about capitalism, uncertain of its purpose in the never-ending culture wars, and still too enthralled to the increasingly boring one-man show that is Donald Trump. Something has to change.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2021 World edition.