After a recent talk I was asked questions about the future of the Republican Party. The ultimate question seemed to be: is its future in the hands of Donald Trump? My answer was a qualified no.
The Republican Party in the 20th Century was global, fiscally conservative, emphasized military preparedness and was generally skeptical about federal regulation and entitlements. Plus, after the Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade, it became increasingly pro-life. It also had some key leaders in environmental policy including Richard Nixon who, with his pen, created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Now there is a populist strain in the Party that complicates analysis. For one thing the analysts live well outside populist regions and neighborhoods. And, leaders in both Parties misjudged the effects of Chinese manufacturing and trade predation and technologies’ disruption of patterns of work and living.
Jobs disappeared—breadwinners found themselves in bread lines. Conservative abstractionists told the out-of-work to learn new skills and move to the jobs. Yep, nomads in Washington think tanks had prescriptions, but they didn’t go down well. Many do not want to move away from familiarity, family and friends.
The Left side of the political spectrum echoed some of the same advice, but for the most part seemed more sympathetic with identity politics than policies and politics that might provide jobs in the regions hardest hit.
If you were out of a job and thoroughly frustrated by the lack of prospects, politicians of whatever stated persuasion seemed not just irrelevant, but exploitative.
And then the rich guy showed up; the one who had been dismissing wannabes on The Apprentice for fourteen years. He talked like the guys at the Union halls and beyond. And while the estranged generally dismissed political slogans, “Make America Great Again” tapped into a rich vein of nostalgia.
He won, surprising the entire smart set. Indeed they were not just surprised, they were horrified. But, at the end of the day, politics is about winning and four years later he lost. He, of course, said he won, but recounts, courts, Congress and occupancy told a different story.
He lost because too many temperate people became offended; there is a slice of demographics—Right, Left and Center—that believe once a retail politician is in the White House he should act Presidential. It was okay for the rich guy to break china on the way in, but not while sleeping there.
Donald Trump, one day in 2016 noted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” This bombast was often believed to be true; it wasn’t. Today both the election results and polls show he has a substantial following in the Republican Party, but that puts his supporters in a position of being a majority of a minority. In short, Trump has power, but not enough to be President again. Re-nominating Trump would be political suicide; winning with the former President would require egregious political stupidity by the other side.
The last two times hard-core political minorities dismissed majority attitudes in the run for the White House was with Republican Barry Goldwater who won six States and Democrat George McGovern who won Massachusetts and DC.
Today’s Republican Party is defined by what it is against. The politics are so raucous that content is hard to find. And many of Donald Trump’s supporters seem largely animated by Trump’s claim that the election was stolen. They need to reflect on the damage of this claim. Trump’s continuing rat-a-tat-tat on stolen election claims undermines our democracy in fundamental ways.
Covid 19 should not be left out. There is a libertarian wing in the Party that believes, regardless of viruses not honoring geographical lines, the central government should not be able to make any public health rules. Several Republican Governors, however, tell Mayors and business people what they can or can’t do. This, to say the least, unsettles a large swath of the public.
It is, of course, too early to be definitive about the politics of 2024. In a little over a year we will vote again for what will be a redistricted Congress; 2022 will be a good year for Republicans, the only option to the Party in power. President Joe Biden has been too compliant with his Party’s far Left, made a hash of Afghanistan policy and withdrawal and is going to be held accountable for the tragic circumstances on the Southern border. Plus, conservative-minded people, Republican and Independent alike, are aghast at the multi-trillion dollar proposed tax and spending levels.
I did, of course, say that Donald Trump will not again be President. Forced to make a prediction about 2024 I will turn to hope. I would like to see a veteran elected. The last President who saw combat was George HW Bush who, after assembling an international coalition, kicked the Iraqi’s out of Kuwait and then brought the troops home. Veterans understand sacrifice and know that the only winning strategy is working together.
But, what I hope for is not a basis for prediction, so let me add a political dimension. Reading about public attitudes toward our foundational institutions is discouraging. Almost the only organization that continues to earn the public’s confidence is the military. The next President will be a veteran.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.