At last, we’ve reached the reckoning. Not long ago, it appeared that the Republican Party would press ahead under the Donald Trump banner even after he left office. Then this week hit with two stunning Senate losses in Georgia for the GOP, followed by a Trump rally that erupted into a riot as the president’s supporters stormed the Capitol in a bid to overturn the election. They failed, but five people, including a police officer, died as a result. With the GOP facing complete Democratic control of Washington and many Trump allies jumping ship as fast as they can, the questions become more urgent: Where does the party go from here? Does it splinter or evolve into something else? In this Sunday Magazine, we pick the brains of everyone from OZY readers to leading Republicans.
The Republican mantra toward Trump has long been to take him “seriously, but not literally” while explaining away the worst of his autocratic tendencies as “folksy exaggeration,” as Ezra Klein writes in the New York Times. But in Trump’s Wednesday revolt, we saw the consequences of millions taking the president at his word. Former Georgia Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, who has been a Trump defender, tells OZY that constant and often hysterical attacks from institutions and the media (claiming Trump is a Russian asset, for example) helped radicalize the crowd. While “the mob overplayed their hand, you can’t ignore them any more than you can ignore Black Lives Matter and the angst behind it,” Kingston says.
The Republican Party prides itself as the Party of Lincoln. But a major part of Abraham Lincoln’s rise was his victory over the Know Nothings, a Tea Party-like grassroots movement that opposed a diversifying nation and elites whom they felt created a rigged system. A modern iteration is forming around a group of what could be called “Say Anythings,” populists in the mold of Trump who will support even the most baseless of allegations under the guise of simply reflecting the views of the average American. Sen. Josh Hawley embodied this by arguing it was his duty to baselessly challenge the election results simply because many of his Missouri constituents believed fraud happened.
Fox News hostTucker Carlson, whose fears of change include a dystopian Starbucks-drinking future, is the chief figurehead of the Say Anything style. On Wednesday, he blamed the Trump revolt on elites: “It is not your fault,” he told his viewers. “It is their fault.” Several OZY readers agreed, with lifelong Republican Kim C. writing that blame lies with “politicians from both sides who have done nothing for Americans for the past 20 years … while the rest of us have suffered.” If Carlson runs in 2024, he would be an instant frontrunner given his anti-establishment zeal and platform on the most popular cable news show by far.
There is another theory of Republicanism born from the social media age, of an ideology-free party formed around one uniting principle: owning the libs. People like Candace Owens and Dan Bongino channel immense influence despite little philosophical consistency because of their propensity for viral attack lines. Then there’s Donald Trump Jr., who is beloved by the base for his cynical ferocity. His best-selling book is literally called Triggered, and if Trump Jr. wants it, the Republican race to replace his father is tantalizingly winnable — that is, if his dad doesn’t rip the rug out from underneath him.
Longtime Republican pollster Whit Ayres separates the party into the “populist wing” and the “governing wing.” Ayres tells OZY he has “yet to see significant evidence” that Trump’s populist support was damaged by the insurrection, while the governing wing was appalled and further targeted for breaking with the president. What divides the groups? Often media consumption. The people who are lapping up lies from Fox News opinion hosts, Facebook, Newsmax and OANN about how the election was stolen and antifa was behind the Capitol storming — those folks are going to continue to stick with Trump or his chosen successor. The question now becomes what Trump’s post-election platform looks like: How much will TV cover him? How much will being blocked from Twitter dampen his reach? How much will his legal defenses dominate his attention?
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Among top GOP figures, the dance away from Trump is well under way, often with a pre-Trump vision. Take former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who told party leaders at the Republican National Committee winter meeting on Thursday that Trump’s post-election actions will be “judged harshly by history,” but the party shouldn’t shy away from celebrating Trump wins like installing three conservative Supreme Court justices and brokering a warming between Israel and the Arab world. According to excerpts of the closed-door speech obtained by OZY, she urged the party not to “abandon” its long-held principles at a low moment. RNC committee members largely dismissed the notion that Trump had any role in the violence and his handpicked leader, Ronna McDaniel, was unanimously reelected.
2. Aspiring to Be Aspirational
Haley’s fellow South Carolinian Sen. Tim Scott, 55, promotes anti-poverty measures, has challenged Trump on race as the Senate’s only Black Republican and gave a well-received speech at last summer’s Republican National Convention. Scott, who’s also in the 2024 mix, is “a potential superstar,” in former congressman Kingston’s estimation. Ayres points to Sen. Marco Rubio’s speech at Catholic University outlining a kind of common-good capitalism. It’s a way to translate conservative values to those left behind by the economy who might be inclined to support a Trump-style populist — or Democrats.
Mark Robinson has an aspirational story of his own: He was a nonpolitical factory worker just two years ago and is now the first Black lieutenant governor of North Carolina after winning his November election. The 52-year-old advocates for renewing a spirit of “standing up to empower people,” as he puts it: “Our party is about giving – conserving people’s rights and helping people rise up past their current situation.” While there was a 2020 shift among Black, Asian and (particularly) Hispanic voters toward the GOP, Fordham University professor and OZY editor-at-large Christina Greer points out that arguments like Robinson’s can repulse minority voters as well: “This bootstraps philosophy often works when there is a racialized element saying others aren’t pulling themselves up and are instead looking for handouts.”
But courting more working class voters of color will require a more forceful break with the party’s white supremacist fringe — often stoked by Trump, who declared that there were some “very fine people” at the Charlottesville, Virginia, “Unite the Right” rally and told the Capitol stormers, “I love you.” The party’s wild claims of fraud that always seemed to focus on majority-Black cities like Atlanta could have helped spur record Black turnout against Republicans in the Georgia runoffs.
In a 50-50 U.S. Senate, those who work across the aisle will matter most. Ron Christie, a former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, points out that “so much of Trumpism has been a repudiation of the moderates, those who are willing to cut deals with the Democrats.” On the latest episode of When Katty Met Carlos, Christie tells OZY’s co-founder and CEO Carlos Watson and the BBC’s Katty Kay that moderates like Sens. Mitt Romney and Susan Collins take on new importance with Trump out of the picture. Another to watch: Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who threatened to leave the GOP altogether if it doesn’t quit Trump.
A slew of moderate Republican governors whose day job is forging consensus could also remake the party in their image. Take Larry Hogan of Maryland, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire. A dark horse favorite? Vermont’s Phil Scott, who has pioneered health care reform in Bernie’s state and said Trump was unfit for office after the Ukraine scandal, was the first Republican governor to call for his ouster after Wednesday’s attack. The likeable stock car racer could do for the GOP what that other famous Vermonter, Howard Dean, did for the Democrats in modernizing the party.
7. A Center-Left Conservatism
One Georgia conservative lamented to me that the Republican Party may morph into a left-of-center group to capture enough votes to stay relevant. Lance A., a reader from New Mexico, says the stain of the GOP’s allegiance to Trump can only be rectified by a “run, not walk, to the left.” Ironically, it may be Ivanka Trump who embodies this, a former Democrat who throughout her short time in politics — and, most recently, while stumping in Georgia — has branded herself as an aspirational conservative while also advocating for policies like paid family leave.
8. Ban It All Down
There’s also a growing movement saying those who aided and abetted Trump’s war on the election results should be blacklisted. These aren’t just holier-than-thou liberals, but people like star National Review conservative Kevin Williamson, who on Tuesday wrote: “No one who has participated in this poisonous buffoonery should ever hold office again.” Trump staffers are certainly worried that will be the case: Even as the U.S. Capitol was ransacked, White House employees were fretting that the insurrection would damage their Beltway résumés.
Jerry Kraemer, a 70-year-old Kentuckian who worked in the trucking industry, has voted Republican since he was 18 but felt betrayed by the way Trump enriched his friends and added to the national debt with tax cuts and big industry bailouts during COVID-19. He ended up pulling the lever for Trump, but he now says he wouldn’t have if he had known Trump would contest the results. The Republican Party “does not have a viable leader,” Kraemer says, seeing no hope in the young crop. Instead he says Republicans should draft a business leader again … just this time a better, more honest, one. “I could see somebody like Mark Cuban,” he says.
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There may be a real opportunity: As reader Ted H. notes, the Republican Party once before rejected a beloved populist ex-president. Theodore Roosevelt, who went on to form the independent Bull Moose Party, bested Republican incumbent William Howard Taft but lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912. “If the Republican Party can divorce itself from Trumpism or at least from Trump, it can be revived,” he writes. As Kathy F. adds, the United States may be ready for a party of moderates “to incorporate folks from both parties who are fed up with the concept of Party, and not policy and people.”
Rep.Justin Amash thrilled third-party seekers by leaving the Republican Party in 2019 but disappointed by not building enough momentum to run for higher office — although he did call constitutionalists, libertarians and classical liberals to form a new party on Thursday. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich signaled his third-way politics by speaking at the Democratic National Convention in July, and has been staking ground for a post-Trump party for a while now. You also can’t count out a third party emerging from the right to back Trump against GOP elites, as some Trump supporters have proposed.
For years, Europe’s far right has courted Trump and basked in his support. But after Wednesday’s mob attack on the Capitol, they’ve been scrambling to distance themselves. Far-right leaders from Nigel Farage of the U.K. to France’s Marine Le Pen to the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders denounced the violence in strong terms. Many of these leaders share political positions with Trump, but they’re mostly on the fringes of mainstream politics in countries with strong democratic institutions. They, at the very least, need sheep’s clothing — and after Wednesday, Trump threatens to leave them naked.
2. Time to Say Goodbye
Trump was a very useful ally to them while in power. Without the presidency, he’s a millstone around their neck. Three of Trump’s most important global friends — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, India’s Narendra Modi and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu — were uncharacteristically quick to issue statements of condemnation and call for a peaceful transfer of power. Trump’s positions were useful for this trio, but they will need to work with the incoming Biden administration, and they lead old conservative political parties with strong bases that never depended on Trump.
3. The Fence Sitters
Like Johnson, Modi and Netanyahu, this set of leaders is in power. But unlike them, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán pitch themselves as provocative mavericks, especially when it comes to curbing human rights and civil liberties. The expansion of Trumpian politics globally assists them, and it’s not impossible to see them asking supporters to mimic what happened on Wednesday, should they feel the need. But they’re both firmly entrenched in power with little incentive to publicly support Trump now. So they’ve chosen the next best route — silence.
One influential world leader remains resilient to the changing winds: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Asked about the violence at the Capitol, Bolsonaro said: “You know I’m connected to Trump, right? So you already know my answer.” He has modeled himself after Trump in more than personality and policy as he spreads wild voter fraud claims in his own country. And as an OZY deep-dive revealed recently, Bolsonaro’s family and supporters are believed to have orchestrated a social media misinformation campaign in the U.S. to dispute the presidential election results. Experts believe it might have been a dry run for 2022, when Bolsonaro might need similar tactics for his reelection campaign.
Populism need not be a curse word, although it’s become one (smart Democrats realize that the nectar that draws MAGA bees also makes the honey that fuels Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders). That is, the communal zeal these days is not love for party but hate for elites, and a successful party must listen to voters when they say “we need this.” Consider how the promise of $2,000 stimulus checks may have played a role in the closing days of the Georgia Senate races.
For conservatives, that may mean an “America First” foreign policy that forces other democracies to pick up the tab sometimes, coupled with a tougher trade stance against China. Or a little less Wall Street and a little more Main Street. “Our economy will never stabilize as long as we are focused on creating wealth rather than well-paying jobs,” says reader Barb R. of Ames, Iowa.
Perhaps the most creative person advocating a way forward for conservative economics is Oren Cass, the former Romney advisor and executive director of the think tank American Compass. His scholarship critically analyzes everything from elite fetishization of GDP to the assumption that free markets lead to positive outcomes for American workers. Conservative economics, he writes, must accord equal respect to capital and labor. Centered around ideals of a more family-focused economy, Cass advocates for a new way of measuring economic success, a “cost-thriving index” that asks: “Does this wage cover a middle-class family’s needs?”
4. Environmental Trendsetters
“A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling stop,” William F. Buckley famously wrote. But to protect tradition, societies must change in response to new threats and opportunities. Republicans like former Congressman Bob Inglis and Indiana mayor Jim Brainard have begged for adoption of thoughtful, conservative climate policy, and the party can’t afford to opt out anymore with conservatives leading climate-conscious states like Iowa and Florida. There is clear bipartisan appeal that I saw firsthand while traveling to every state in 2017, from Trump-voting Nebraska farmers erecting solar panels in their corn fields to anti-eminent domain Georgians rallying against a pipeline project. And yet, Trump administration efforts to roll back environmental regulations have had near-unanimous GOP backing — including a last-ditch but largely unsuccessful move to open up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drillers.
5. Reviving Rural America
Young people in rural economies face a terrible choice: Head to the big city for career opportunities or stay in the homes their families have long invested in. But it doesn’t have to be that way. While highways once connected people to jobs, high speed broadband will form the bridges of the future. Self-driving cars will allow exurban and rural workers to commute while they sleep. The GOP can take a leading role in reforming economic and urban policies to aid their base, but it may require shrugging off monopolies like the cable industry.