Republican officials who have indulged or assisted in President Trump’s effort to nullify the 2020 election have many motivations: partisanship, conviction, delusion, cynicism, ambition, paranoia, fear. But all these reasons for participation in an antidemocratic power grab point to a single truth: For many, Mr. Trump is all that binds the Republican Party together.
No other Republican or conservative leader personalized his leadership in this way. In 1960, Barry Goldwater told a student group lobbying him to run for president: “The man is not important. The principles you espouse are.” In 1976, Ronald Reagan told “60 Minutes” that the Republican Party would be “dead” unless it “stands up and erects a set of principles around which people can rally.” The “Contract With America” wasn’t between the country and Representative Newt Gingrich. It was with the Republican Party.
But that is ancient history. Since 2015, Mr. Trump has added the Republican Party to his collection of brands. He began his political career as an outsider. He registered with and sent donations to both Republicans and Democrats. In August 2015, at the first Republican presidential debate, he refused to promise to support the party’s nominee and to not run an independent campaign. But the next month, he reversed himself, famously and ostentatiously signing a Republican National Committee “Loyalty Pledge.”
By November 2016, Mr. Trump had attracted a devout following that crossed ideological and party lines. His most committed supporters identified the New York businessman as a historic figure who alone could save the nation from decline. The bulk of the conservative movement and the Republican Party agonized over Mr. Trump’s conduct, rhetoric and character, but voted for him anyway. The alternative of President Hillary Clinton seemed worse.
This fretful ambivalence turned into enthusiastic commitment over the next four years. Mr. Trump was far better on policy for conservatives than skeptics had imagined. His judicial selections, tax and regulatory moves, and toughness toward China and Iran earned their favor. He and the conservatives also shared enemies — a biased media, an entrenched bureaucracy, liberal Democrats. And because many of the attacks on the president seemed to conservatives to be partisan, silly or false, it became easy to pass over those criticisms that were objective, serious and true.
Many Republican officials who had voiced concerns over Mr. Trump’s style and agenda retired or died. The NeverTrump faction of Republican and conservative elites broke off from the movement to found alternative media platforms and institutions. Most of the central institutions of the American right — the activist think tanks, the single-issue groups, talk radio, blogs, cable news — aligned themselves with Mr. Trump’s program, if not always with his persona.
It was a tricky play. The Trump program is subject to change at the whim of the Trump persona. The party more often catered to the president’s obsessions, tastes, moods and inclinations than it stood against them. Even as it became clear that what really thrilled the crowds at MAGA rallies was Mr. Trump’s unpredictability, brashness, crudity, dark comedy and unapologetic fighting spirit, some on the right began an effort to backfill ideological content into the vessel of “Trumpism.”
What they forgot was that for Mr. Trump, everything is a transaction. Deals can be modified until the last moment and then litigated after the contract has been signed. It’s true that the broad outlines of Mr. Trump’s worldview — immigration restriction, trade protection, reluctance to enter into foreign entanglements, opposition to entitlement reform — have been more or less consistent for decades. What is equally true is that Mr. Trump has no hesitation in dropping a proposal, person or principle if he believes it will suit him. The programmatic details of Trumpism are fungible. The attitude behind it is not.
And Mr. Trump’s attitude is what came to define the conservative movement and the Republican Party. In 2017, Kellyanne Conway said that Mr. Trump’s presence at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) would rechristen the gathering as TPAC. She has not been proved wrong. Discussions of policy and the political horse race gave way to figuring out the best way to “own the libs” — a Trump specialty — and whatever controversy engaged Mr. Trump’s attention at the moment. For much of the right, unplacable and vocal resistance to cultural progressivism mattered more than experience, credentials or know-how.
A lot of policy was actually happening behind the scenes of the culture war (like the new Nafta and efforts to lower prescription drug prices). But policy was not what interested most people. They wanted the fight against the deep state, RINOs (Republicans in name only) and the Squad. They said that the game was rigged against them and that only Mr. Trump had the audacity to throw out the rule book.
This devotion to the politics of confrontation had limits. When Mr. Trump ran for re-election, he found himself unable to articulate a second-term agenda. For the first time since 1856, the Republican Party did not issue a platform. Delegates to the Republican National Convention rereleased the 2016 document, with a brief prefatory note. It pledged to “enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” As if there was any doubt.
Untangling the party from Mr. Trump will require Republican officials to follow the lead of conservative jurists and the growing number of lawmakers who acknowledge the reality of Joe Biden’s victory. It will require a delicate recalibration of the relationship between party elites and the grass-roots populism that fuels the Trump phenomenon.
It will require a depersonalization of the right, with leaders focusing less on individual candidates and more on the principles that have guided the movement for more than half a century: anti-statism, constitutionalism, patriotism and anti-socialism. And it will take a willingness to look ahead to the next election, rather than dwell on the last one.
None of this will be easy. Mr. Trump’s power over the right waxes even as his institutional strength wanes because much of the Republican Party judges his presidency to have been a success. He infused the party with new voters, with a new set of issue positions and with a devil-may-care brio. He fulfilled his side of the bargain with conservative interest groups. His Tweets deflect attention from a lack of internal consensus on health care, technology and foreign policy.
The Republican Party has embraced reality-TV authoritarianism not out of strength but weakness. Mr. Trump is all it has.
Matthew Continetti (@continetti) is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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