The day has come: Donald Trump has been voted out of office. While many Americans are taking this time to celebrate Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ success, it would be naive to think that Trumpism, Trump’s particular brand of populist ideology, is leaving with him. Like it or not, Trump shattered the Republican status quo, inspiring a reordering of U.S. politics that will land him among the most influential people of the decade, if not the century. Many people across the political spectrum are now wondering what is in store for the future of the Grand Old Party (GOP)––a party that, because of Trump, is now sitting on a platform virtually unrecognizable from where it was just a decade ago.
A common sentiment that arises in assessing Trumpist politics is that he did not explicitly start a movement; he simply poured gasoline on a preexisting flame. This claim is essentially true, but is slightly misleading and makes broad generalizations about the GOP. Since the Cold War era, the Republican Party has tied its evangelical and business-elite libertarian wings together through the process of fusionism. These two factions developed separately but were bonded via their shared belief in a strong American military presence to quell what was seen then as the global threat of communism.
The party was actively guided by the business elite wing, and grew to outwardly represent globalism and free-market trade practices. The business-elite libertarians, epitomized by Ronald Reagan, sought to keep in check the nativist, isolationist faction by suppressing its members’ influence, while relying on their party loyalty. But underneath the surface, intra-party tension was bubbling, evident in the establishment of the Tea Party sect of the GOP in 2009––merely one year after the Great Recession in 2008. Many low-income, undereducated evangelical Republicans started to care less (if they ever cared at all) about conservative Republicanism, and instead began to develop a populist, anti-elitist attitude aimed at both Democratic and Republican elites––people whom they perceived as apathetic to their needs, especially regarding their losses in the financial crisis.
This effect was thoroughly overlooked by the Republican establishment of libertarian business elites. Trump harnessed the Tea Party energy as a political outsider and emboldened the growing sect of the party that never came to terms with Republicanism as the globalist, multicultural free market-praising ideology candidates like George Bush wanted it to be. While other presidential candidates attempted to coast off the Bush family’s version of Republicanism, Trump flipped that vision on its head. Unearthing the charade that the libertarians still maintained dominance of the party, Trump spoke up for the evangelical sect that had never consented to the globalization development in Republicanism and felt like they were not being heard. Instead of relying on typical Republican tropes like arguing for less government or protecting Second Amendment rights, Trump opted for an aggressively protectionist and socially conservative approach aimed at targeting working class Americans.
Trump wanted to pull the evangelical sect back into the conversation as a punch in the gut to the libertarian business elites, who the evangelicals felt had condescended them for too long. And it worked. By strategically choosing Mike Pence as Vice President, a faithful evangelical who also received backing from the Koch brothers, Trump curried favor with born-again America, reeling in more than 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 election.
It is worth mentioning the trend during the Republican primaries of self-proclaimed “Never Trumpers” turning into Trump loyalists. These conservative politicians, like Lindsey Graham, quickly saw their bases mesmerized by Trump, and feared that if they did not abandon their “Never Trump” stance and align with his populist politics they would be ousted by someone in the primary contests who did. So having caused such a collateral impact, what does Trump’s absence now mean for the Republican party?
Without Trump there to pick and choose who succeeds and who does not, politicians may have a little more wiggle room in adapting their platforms. However, they do have to keep in mind that in many cases, their base was also Trump’s base, so diverting from the former President’s stances could be interpreted as sacrilegious by their constituencies. For the libertarian business elite to make a comeback, Trump’s presence will need to take up significantly less space in the party, a choice that he does not appear to be making anytime soon. On the other hand, his bombastic energy is so personal that it would be extremely hard to replicate, except by perhaps Donald Trump Jr., whom many speculate might make a presidential run in 2024.
Furthermore, the 2020 election results are telling as to where the party is heading and what voter blocs they are targeting, both of which pertain to Trumpism’s internal influence on the GOP. Trump’s entire political character centers around economic nationalism coupled with extreme social conservatism. Right now, that nationalism hinges on white supremacy, but this election showcased a migration of Latinx voters (historically a voting bloc for the Democratic Party as well as America’s fastest growing minority population) to the GOP. This means that Trump’s economic nationalism could turn into civic nationalism––if Trumpists ditch the race-baiting tactics they could build a young, multi-racial coalition of Republicans. Republicanism is slowly becoming favorable among poor American districts as wealth inequality spreads. Ironically, the Democrats have traditionally pitched themselves as the people’s party, but are now overwhelmingly supported in the nation’s richest counties. Meanwhile, Republicans are starting to sneakily co-opt social programs presented by progressives without calling them left-wing.
Take, for instance, Bernie Sanders’ primary success over Joe Biden in states such as California and Nevada with high Latinx populations. In the presidential election Biden significantly underperformed nationally with Latinx voters, a concerning foreshadowing for the Democratic National Convention’s (DNC) relation with America’s fastest growing ethnic population. As the right starts to out-left the left, the DNC is quickly losing its credibility, particularly among working American Latinx voters. The GOP knows that this growing Latinx voter-bloc is relatively socially conservative, yet economically liberal. Since Latinx voters are less likely to identify outright as liberal than white Democrats, the election results show that it’s easier for them to jump from backing a Sanders platform to backing a GOP contender if the GOP can appropriate left-leaning economic policies without explicitly calling them left-wing. For example, Marco Rubio recently called for “common-good capitalism,” in a speech in which he criticized the ethics of businesses making excessive profits while excluding workers from sharing in those profits.
Trump has tapped into an aspect of economic nationalism that is explicitly racialized. But the Republican takeaway is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be. With traditional geopolitical barriers having been broken and reorganized, and the Democratic Party transitioning from the peoples’ party to that of the elites, the working-class vote is up for grabs. If the now-imploded Republican Party can sponsor a Trumpist ideology in 2024 that drops the race-baiting and transforms economic nationalism into civic nationalism, they may be able to convince a majority of working-class Americans to adopt Republicanism. This approach would entail a nuanced take on the Republican Party that denounces neoliberal free-market ideologies, while promising working-class Americans social programs typically reserved for far-left supporters of Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You might think this approach is strange for Republicans, but remember, Trump won with a non-traditional emphasis that abandoned the tenets of 20th-century conservatism. If the DNC won’t listen to the progressive wing of their party, they are leaving a fiscally liberal gap for conservatives to seize in the name of anti-elitism and anti-neoliberalism.