Republican primaries offer look into future of Trumpism without Trump

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<span>Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

In his campaign heyday, Donald Trump would declare it the greatest movement in the history of politics and promise: “We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning.”

What never occurred to him was that the “Make America Great Again” movement – or Maga – might get sick and tired of him first.

Related: Tuesday’s Republican primaries did not go as Trump had hoped | Lloyd Green

The former US president suffered some humiliation on Tuesday when four candidates he handpicked in Georgia lost Republican primary elections in a landslide. It was a stinging rebuke in what has become ground zero for his “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen.

But it was no rebuke of Maga and all it stands for.

The hard-right, nativist-populist strain of Republican politics predates Trump and will surely survive him. This year’s primary season winners in Georgia and elsewhere have been careful not to disavow the movement, or its patriarch, even when they lack his blessing.

“Donald Trump has transformed the Republican party over the past five years and it is now a solid majority Trumpist party with everything that entails in policy and in tone,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington. “On the other hand, Republicans, including very conservative ones, are clearly willing to entertain the possibility of Trumpism without Trump.”

Trump is now 75 and could be living a quiet, golf-playing retirement like other past presidents. But against the counsel of some of his inner circle, he chose to make this year’s midterm elections about him and the primaries – votes in states and districts to decide which Republicans will take on Democrats in November – a referendum on his continued influence.

Trump endorsed candidates in nearly 200 races, from governor to county commissioner, often in contests that are not particularly competitive and help bolster his list of wins. But others have been reckless, vengeful bets aimed at dislodging incumbents who defied his claims of election fraud. So far, the results have been a mixed bag.

The month began well enough in Ohio, where venture capitalist and author JD Vance leaped from third to first place following Trump’s late-stage endorsement in the Senate primary.

JD Vance greets Donald Trump at a rally in Delaware, Ohio, in April.
JD Vance greets Donald Trump at a rally in Delaware, Ohio, in April. Photograph: Joe Maiorana/AP

In North Carolina, Trump helped the 26-year-old former college football player Bo Hines win the nomination for a seat in the House of Representatives. In Pennsylvania, voters chose his preferred candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, who said he would not have certified Joe Biden’s 2020 win of the state.

But other governor races, which often turn on specific local issues, have proved more elusive. Trump’s pick in Nebraska’s primary, Charles Herbster, lost after allegations surfaced that he had groped women. In Idaho a week later, Governor Brad Little comfortably beat a Trump-backed challenger.

In North Carolina, meanwhile, voters rejected Trump’s plea to give a scandal-plagued congressman Madison Cawthorn a second chance. And in Pennsylvania, a Senate primary featuring Trump-endorsed TV doctor Mehmet Oz remains too close to call.

This week Trump again notched some wins including Sarah Sanders, his former White House press secretary, in the primary for governor of Arkansas. But it was all overshadowed by Georgia, where he has pushed his personal vendetta hardest and so squandered political capital.

It was not just that former senator David Perdue, whom Trump had lobbied to run, lost to Governor Brian Kemp, who had refused to overturn the results of the 2020 election in his state. It was also the crushing margin: Kemp beat Perdue by a staggering 52 percentage points.

Republicans, including very conservative ones, are clearly willing to entertain the possibility of Trumpism without Trump

Bill Galston

Rubbing salt into the wound, Georgia’s secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, who defied Trump’s call to “find” the votes to change the outcome two years ago, also won his party’s nomination. Attorney general Chris Carr and insurance commissioner John King, both opposed by Trump, prevailed in their primaries too.

Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, commented: “The results in Georgia were really stunning. Few, if any Republicans, have aroused Donald Trump’s ire so much as Governor Kemp and Brad Raffensperger and they both did substantially better than expected. Donald Trump went all out in Georgia and he ended up an egg on this face, which is significant.

“It may be that the people who have been in the bull’s eye of Trump’s ‘big lie’ campaign have started resenting it and took their resentment out. More generally, I think an increasing number of people are asking themselves a question that they weren’t asking previously: would we be better off with a Trumpist candidate who’s not named Donald Trump?”

Among those asking the question is Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, who campaigned for Kemp in Georgia and told the Politico website: “Trump picked this fight.” Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have also felt at liberty to campaign for midterm candidates denied Trump’s imprimatur.

Then there is Mike Pence, the former vice-president, who defied his old boss by rallying with Kemp on Monday and telling the crowd: “Elections are about the future.” Pence, himself a former governor of Indiana, has made a habit of speaking with pride about the accomplishments of the Trump-Pence administration while distancing himself from the “big lie”.

Should he run for president in 2024, he may pay close attention to how Little, Kemp and others have studiously avoided criticising Trump while capturing swaths of his base by shifting right on abortion, gun rights and “culture wars” issues and signing legislation to prove it. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is another likely student of the formula.

That means there is still little room for more old school Republicans such as Senator Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, who lost the presidential election in 2012. Few are making an impact in the primaries. “A Republican who wants to pretend that 2016 through 2020 never happened and go back to the Romney-Ryan era is not going to do well in today’s Republican party,” said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington.

But Trump does face a further challenge to his authority from the far right.

Some on this wing effectively accuse him of not being Trumpy enough, as demonstrated last year when he was booed for urging supporters to get vaccinated against the coronavirus (he now barely mentions vaccines in his speeches).

Kathy Barnette, a Senate candidate who mounted a late surge in Pennsylvania with ideas even more extreme than Oz, told the Reuters news agency: “Maga doesn’t belong to him. Trump coined the word. He does not own it.”

Kandiss Taylor, a similarly far-right candidate for governor of Georgia, backs Trump’s false claims of voter fraud but is unsure whether she would vote for him again in 2024. She said in an interview with the Guardian: “It’s not about him. The people of America chose him and he’s the one that we elected. Will I vote for him in 2024? It all depends on what happens between now and then and who runs against him.”

A further sign of fracturing came this week when Cawthorn, smarting from his defeat in North Carolina, swore revenge on “cowardly and weak” members of his own party and declared: “It’s time for the rise of the new right, it’s time for Dark Maga to truly take command.”

The anti-democratic implication was that the end justifies the means in an existential struggle for America. Cawthorn named allies including the Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, rightwing activist Charlie Kirk, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Trump himself, suggesting that the former president has already turned to the dark side.

Donald Trump dances as he leaves the stage during a rally for GOP candidates in Commerce, Georgia, in March.
Donald Trump dances as he leaves the stage during a rally for GOP candidates in Commerce, Georgia, in March. Photograph: Hyosub Shin/AP

Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who belonged to the rightwing Tea Party movement, said: “Maga’s dark enough on its own … Trumpism has metastasised beyond Trump and it’ll go in a bunch of different dark, eerie places but it’s all the same thing. Trumpism now is the dominant strain in the party.”

Maga’s identity crisis comes as Biden and other Democratic leaders seek to brand their opponents as “Ultra-Maga Republicans” in the hope that labelling the entire party as extremist will be more effective in the midterms than a singular focus on Trump (though he and his supporters have embraced “Ultra-Maga” in merchandise and fundraising emails).

Yet while Trump’s status as a kingmaker has been diminished, and his “Stop the steal” obsession is wearing thin, it would be unwise to extrapolate too much from primaries where it was always going to be hard to oust popular, well-funded incumbents.

Trump continues to raise vast sums of money and command loyalty from most Republicans in Congress as well as from the Republican National Committee. Polls suggest that he is more popular with the Republican base now than when he won the nomination for president in 2016. His “America first” mantra is now in the party’s DNA; even the candidates he does not endorse typically do endorse him.

Walsh, who challenged Trump in the 2020 presidential primary and now hosts a podcast, added: “Nothing has changed. This is Trump’s party and everything that’s happened this primary season just continues to reflect that … Wake me up when an anti-Trump Republican wins a primary. That would be news.”