A GOP reckoning? If Trump loses his reelection bid, the party may face an identity crisis

Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY
·7 min read

WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican Party is something few could have imagined when he launched what seemed an unlikely bid for the 2016 nomination.

Even if Trump loses reelection Tuesday, his grip on the GOP is strong enough that it could take some time before the party figures out a path forward.

“I do not think this is a party that is ready to grapple with what it’s been doing or reassess itself anytime soon,” said GOP consultant Brendan Buck, who worked for the past two Republican House speakers and does not support Trump.

While he was front and center during the 2016 primary debates, Trump was initially slow to consolidate support. Even as late as the convention, the possibility of a floor fight loomed over his nomination.

Once Trump was elected, his takeover of the GOP was swift. He reshaped the party in his image, and GOP officeholders have been judged – by him and by voters – primarily on their loyalty to the president.

“Until that changes,” Buck said, “it’s going to be hard to have a real conversation about changing who we are as a party.”

That’s despite the fact that the headlines have been filled with former GOP officeholders who reject Trump – even as the party's base remains passionate about the president.

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Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate outside a Joe Biden campaign rally at the Broward College North Campus on Oct. 29 in Coconut Creek, Fla.
Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate outside a Joe Biden campaign rally at the Broward College North Campus on Oct. 29 in Coconut Creek, Fla.

Ninety-five percent of Republicans approve of how Trump is doing his job, a figure similar to George W. Bush’s standing before his 2004 reelection, according to Gallup.

Trump has generally been viewed much less favorably than Bush was among independents and Democrats in the months leading up to the election.

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Some of the worst erosion has been among older voters, those with a college education and women.

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Such changes could force a long-term political realignment, according to William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Clinton administration. Voters who break their ties with the GOP to back Democratic challenger Joe Biden could make a temporary move permanent if they like what they see in a Biden presidency.

“This could be an extremely significant election in that regard because that would mean a shift in the plate tectonics of politics in the United States,” Galston said. “This could be a big one.”

One group of former Republicans who gave up on reshaping the party is the Lincoln Project, which has run some of the toughest ads against Trump, as well as gone after Senate Republicans on the ballot.

“There are a lot of folks who might be very interested in rebuilding the Republican Party,” said Reed Galen, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project who worked for President George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain. “We are not them.”

Galen sees the Lincoln Project as being a “coalition partner” with a Biden administration.

“If you want to get the country healthy and back to work and back to school, it’s going to take a broad-based, bipartisan, nationwide effort to make it happen,” he said. “To the extent that we can be helpful to a President Biden in that regard, we want to do that.”

The Lincoln Project gleefully tweeted that its 2.6 million followers surpassed the Republican National Committee’s 2.5 million.

To Republicans such as Buck, that just proves the group won’t have a voice at the conservative table.

“I think they are a bunch of guys who are effectively leading a Democratic political organization, and their followers are Democrats who are happy to see them take out Republicans for them,” he said.

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It’s not clear whether conservatives who have pushed back against Trump and the changes he’s brought to the party are a significant force, said Vanessa Williamson, co-author of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.”

"The question I think that remains open is how much support those individuals have either institutionally or in terms of voter support," Williamson said at the Brookings Institution, where she is a senior fellow. “It is not, I think, at the level where I would describe it as a faction, even, for the Republican Party, in terms of its level of organization or power within the party."

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President Donald Trump throws a MAGA hat into the crowd as he arrives for a Make America Great Again campaign rally at Altoona-Blair County Airport in Martinsburg, Pa., on Oct. 26.
President Donald Trump throws a MAGA hat into the crowd as he arrives for a Make America Great Again campaign rally at Altoona-Blair County Airport in Martinsburg, Pa., on Oct. 26.

At the conservative American Enterprise Institute, scholar Yuval Levin has been bringing together policy advisers to politicians to discuss how to change what conservatives offer voters.

Levin, who worked on domestic policy for Bush, was among those arguing “well before Trumpism” that base tenets of Reaganism – lowering taxes and letting market forces rule – that drove the party for many years are not delivering for working families.

“That’s very much a debate within the right,” he said. “I think that Republican politicians still are deeply perplexed about what happened in 2016.”

A new think tank, the American Compass, is trying to make it clear that “post-Trumpism needs to be very different from pre-Trumpism.”

“Trump just proved wrong virtually everything that the right-of-center thought it knew about what its politicians were supposed to be saying, what its constituents actually cared about,” said Executive Director Oren Cass, a former adviser to Sen. Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.

Cass argued conservative public policy became too dominated by libertarian impulses, a hands-off approach that left a lot of needs unaddressed.

“We see a much more substantial role for public policy to play in making the market work well,” he said.

A big tent?

To recalibrate, Republicans will have to first wander in the wilderness, said Sarah Longwell, founder of Republicans for the Rule of Law and Defending Democracy Together.

“It comes down to how tight a grip does Donald Trump retain on the party,” she said. “Because one of the things that’s really important to understand about Donald Trump is that he cares less about beating Democrats than he does about owning the Republican Party.”

For that reason, Longwell said, voters have to "absolutely annihilate" Republicans on Nov. 3.

The groups she leads aren’t working to defeat any Republican except Trump, as the Lincoln Project is.

For Defending Democracy Together’s $30 million campaign aimed at giving Republicans the “permission” to vote against Trump through testimonials of Republicans who are doing just that, Longwell wanted as big a tent as possible.

“Ninety percent of the people in our project explicitly endorse Biden and are probably going to vote straight ticket,” she said. “But lots of others might not. And we wanted to have a project that gave everybody in that space a home.”

John Pudner, a former adviser to Romney who supports Trump, said the “Never Trumpers” lost credibility with rank-and-file Republicans when they started going after senators.

“I just don’t see how a conservative thinks we’re better off with every branch being controlled by Democrats,” he said.

Nuns wearing masks displaying Donald Trump's MAGA slogan listen to the president during a campaign rally at Pickaway Agriculture and Event Center in Circleville, Ohio, on Oct. 24.
Nuns wearing masks displaying Donald Trump's MAGA slogan listen to the president during a campaign rally at Pickaway Agriculture and Event Center in Circleville, Ohio, on Oct. 24.

Tom Nichols, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, said it’s laughable to argue that Republicans should keep the Senate to serve as a check-and-balance on Democrats, if they lose the White House.

“I don’t remember, over 40 years, anybody ever saying, ‘Now we’re on the verge of a landslide … but we’d better leave some Democrats in power so that we don’t go crazy,’” said Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise.”

Since it’s “pretty rare for parties to die,” he said, the most likely future is some kind of reconstituted Republican Party.

“But it needs to have new people in it,” he said.

If Trump loses, it’s impossible to predict what things will feel like after Nov. 3, Levin said, but “these conversations will be happening everywhere on the right.”

“I mean,” he said, “it will be all we have to do.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republican reckoning: How does the GOP rebuild if Trump loses?