Column: Will Trumpism survive Trump?

President Trump at a campaign rally Monday at Prescott Regional Airport in Prescott, Ariz.
(AFP / Getty Images)

If President Trump somehow pulls off a come-from-behind victory on election day, his toxic vision for American politics — a divisive mix of economic conservatism, populist grievance and racial resentment — will be ratified for another four years.

But even if Trump loses, Trumpism is certain to survive as the reigning ideology of the Republican Party, at least for the short run.

A few Republicans have begun edging away, like Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who denounced the president last week for “the way he kisses dictators’ butts … [and] flirted with white supremacists.”
But that kind of candid criticism remains rare. The list of presidential critics in the GOP is far shorter than the line of potential successors competing for the role of Trump 2.0.


The reason, Republican strategists say, is simple: Trump may have failed as president, but his angry conservative populism proved spectacularly successful at winning Republican primaries.

“Trumpism is where the votes are,” John Feehery, a former advisor to GOP congressional leaders, told me.

“The Republican establishment is gone, but Trump’s base will still be there: conservatives who don’t want the government telling them what to do, don’t want anyone touching their Social Security and don’t want any more foreign wars,” he added.

The voters who made Trump their party’s nominee in 2016 have stayed stubbornly loyal to him this year, despite a pandemic that he failed to bring under control.

That makes Trump’s name — and his endorsement, if he remains active in politics — a valuable asset to any Republican politician who wants to succeed him.

Even conservatives who have abandoned the party agree.

President Trump’s sprawling political operation has raised well over $1 billion since he took the White House in 2017 — and set a lot of it on fire.

Oct. 19, 2020


“The party isn’t going to break with Trump or Trumpism,” analyst William Kristol, a leading figure in the GOP’s small “Never Trump” movement, told me. “It will move on, it will evolve, but it isn’t going to repudiate him.”

In 2016, Trump showed that the traditional Republican mix of fiscal and cultural conservatism no longer had a solid hold on the party’s voters.

He abandoned GOP economic doctrine and vowed never to cut future spending on Social Security or Medicare. He promised to replace Obamacare with better health insurance benefits at a lower price. He attacked Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and led white supremacists to believe he was on their side.

Once he was in office, he never delivered on several key promises. He never produced a plan to replace Obamacare. His forecasts of thousands of new manufacturing jobs — including a revival of the dying coal and steel industries — turned out mostly empty. His blunt, divisive style — and his failure to grapple effectively with the coronavirus — alienated suburban women and independents.

But the GOP base stayed with him. According to recent polls, roughly 90% of self-identified Republicans say they are voting for him.

If Trump loses, younger Republican leaders will privately debate what went wrong — but most will be careful to avoid open criticism of a leader their voters still revere.

Was Trump too populist — too blunt to keep suburban women in the tent? Was he not populist enough — pushing a tax cut that gave most of its benefits to corporations and the wealthy? Or was he simply not competent enough, especially when faced with the challenge of a pandemic?

Some would-be successors will embrace his entire legacy and say they want to complete his unfinished revolution.

Others will decorously suggest that a less belligerent version of conservatism is what exhausted voters really want.

Even before this year’s votes have been counted, the list of potential 2024 candidates is long enough that pundits have begun classifying them into categories.

There are the relatively traditional (but still Trumpist) conservatives that Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center calls “restorationists”: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sasse.

There are younger reformers with ideas to improve Trump’s populist conservatism: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley.

There are dynastic heirs, whose claim to legitimacy is time spent with the incumbent: Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

And a few remaining moderate conservatives — former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker — who have not shown that they can draw votes from the base Trump built.

The reformers are the most intriguing, if only because they are adding new ideas to the mix.

Rubio, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 2016, has proposed a more humane form of free market economics that he calls “common-good capitalism” — focusing on the well-being of employees, the dignity of work and the health of communities instead of merely maximizing shareholder value.

Hawley has staked out unconventional populist ground, denouncing Silicon Valley technology firms as part of what he calls “the rise of a new oligarchy.”

Cotton is the most Trump-like in tone, a hawkish conservative who has focused on two of the president’s favorite priorities: more restrictive immigration laws and tougher policies toward China, Iran and other adversaries.

There’s one more name in the mix: Donald J. Trump himself.

If he loses the White House, there’s no guarantee that he’ll follow the pattern of his predecessors and retire from politics.

“He’s not going to go away,” warned Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who worked for Rubio in 2016. “He doesn’t seem like the kind of personality to head back to his ranch and take up oil painting. Besides, he has an interest in making money.”

Trump could return to his family business, of course. But he could also launch a television network — a plan he has long discussed — write a memoir and go on a speaking tour.

He could set up a political action committee that would raise money from his faithful supporters, paying some of his own expenses and maintaining his influence in the party. He could set up the successor of his choice.

Or he could run again himself. The Constitution allows it after only one term. After all, breaking norms has always been his specialty.