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  1. US Election 2020
25 November 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 10:01am

The divided heart of the GOP

What will American conservatism look like after Trump?

By Nick Burns

The Republicans have lost the White House. As the election result gradually became clear several days after 3 November – a week as excruciating and protracted as anything else this dreadful year – Donald Trump was set to depart the executive mansion one way or another on 20 January.

There was a moment on the night of the election when it seemed Trump might once more accomplish the improbable. Behind by almost double-digit percentage points in nationwide polls, he won Florida early, bolstered by support from Hispanic voters.

But soon his fortunes waned. Arizona, stronghold of the late Republican senator and presidential candidate John McCain, plumped for Joe Biden, and as Trump’s lead was eroded in Pennsylvania and Georgia by a stream of mail-in ballots, the pivotal states of Michigan and Wisconsin slipped definitively from his grasp.

On the morning of 4 November he gave a press conference, declaring that “frankly, we did win this election” – but only after a resigned monologue about how promising things had looked for him early on. Even he knew it was over.

The night had not been the Republican bloodbath that Democrats had hoped for. The Democratic House majority was cut substantially, while the Senate hangs in the balance. To take control of the upper house, Democrats must win both seats in the Georgia run-offs scheduled for January – a difficult task, even as the state seems solidly in favour of Biden.

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Even then, a knife’s-edge majority will leave conservative Democrats such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin arbiters of the Democratic policy agenda. Biden’s ambitious healthcare plan will die on the vine. Noises about changing the rules of the electoral game to favour Democrats (packing the conservative Supreme Court, awarding statehood to Washington, DC and Puerto Rico to counter the Senate’s “anti-democratic” – that is, anti-Democratic – bias) have already quieted to murmurs.

There is no longer any prospect of these policies being enacted, but the sense that they might be is necessary to keep the progressive and moderate factions within the Democratic Party together. An agreement has arisen between erstwhile Clintonites and followers of the populist Vermont senator Bernie Sanders that Trump’s Republican party is an anti-democratic rump that must be obliterated before the future of the country can be appropriately charted. Those on the left of the party also hope for patronage in the new Biden administration.

But the entente may collapse if, as seems possible, Biden selects a Clintonesque, moderate cabinet, denying Sanders and his fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren top jobs in the new White House.

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Biden’s belated victory speech rehearsed the platitudes of the Obama era – predictably, the chimerical “arc of the moral universe” appeared, bending towards justice, as it so often does depending on the outcome of US presidential elections. “Systemic racism” was mentioned as an afterthought. A few other modifications were more impressive: the Delawarean picked up an old strand in US political rhetoric, reminding Americans that their democracy was not guaranteed but needed to be fought for and won at each new moment. Here was a shadow of that old maxim often attributed to Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Polarisation, division, rancour, these things, too, were not inevitable pathologies afflicting a nation; they were choices, which could be unchosen. Biden pledged to heal the nation’s wounds. There is, of course, no such thing as “healing” in politics, only occasional resolution, and the question is always: resolution on whose terms?

As fireworks went off following Biden’s remarks, a look of confusion and even of terror crossed the president-elect’s face, before dissolving into his trademark, winning smile – a disconcerting omen.

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Where does all this leave the Republican Party? A succession is beginning under obscure portents. The party was not given the cauterising rejection that its most anti-Trump elements were hoping for. A resounding loss would have made it easier for the Never-Trump exiles to return triumphant, bringing with them a more collegial, “compassionate conservatism” – and perhaps also a return to the orthodoxies Trump rejected: fiscal discipline, free trade with China, fewer compunctions about keeping troops in Afghanistan.

But intellectuals associated with the party who have attached their hopes to a notion of “Trumpism without Trump” also face uncertain prospects. Here, there are hopes for a rally behind a figure such as Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host who has adopted Trump’s anti-elite rhetoric and economic populism without attaching himself to the president’s personality cult. There is also the Missouri senator Josh Hawley, who has denounced the malignant influence of tech companies such as Facebook.

[see also: Leader: The last days of Trump]

Their hope is to “realign” American politics, making the Democrats the party of big business and the politically correct pieties of the coastal elite, while the Republicans become the party of the working class and of American values: liberty, family, faith.

A leading muse of this new dispensation is Oren Cass, whose think tank, American Compass, proposes a platform for a Republican Party that rejects “market fundamentalism” and intervenes in the economy on behalf of working families. Witnessing a Hispanic swing towards Trump – not just among the more conservative Cubans of Florida, but also in the rural, poor, formerly Democratic bastion of the Rio Grande Valley – Cass declared that the GOP was becoming a “multi-ethnic, working-class” party.

That was putting it rather strongly. Certainly, Hispanic Americans are a much more politically diverse group than many realise. But even if Hispanic Americans in Texas and Florida can be enticed away from the Democrats, these modest inroads do not necessarily translate to broader appeal for the GOP.

Republicans have long seen the Catholic religion of many Hispanic Americans as a chance to mobilise them on the issue of abortion, but signs of a political Catholicism to match American political evangelicalism remain absent. Biden also wisely resisted calls to “defund the police”, preventing law-and-order-minded minority voters from defecting from his party after this year’s unrest in American cities.

Still, the election convincingly refuted the GOP’s fear about “demographic obsolescence”. The notion that rising ethnic diversity in the country would eventually provide a permanent Democratic majority has long been one of the theories circulating in American punditry – in this case appealing equally to smug, complacent Democrats and catastrophist Republicans.

The day Texas turns Democrat has been delayed for the umpteenth time: expect it to be delayed to the Greek calends. Meanwhile, where Democrats have made electoral inroads, as in Georgia, this has not been down to racial-historical notions of “demographic destiny”, but the political efforts of figures such as Stacey Abrams, who has become the party’s most valuable organiser in the Deep South. In other areas, such as Arizona and the Rust Belt, Democratic gains have come from the increased white support in the anti-Trump suburbs.

Banking on Never-Trump suburbanites is a risk for the Democrats. They are voters who will desert the party should the Republicans select a more respectable candidate than Trump. On the other hand, the more the Democrats come to rely on suburbanites, the more they will fulfil Oren Cass’s prediction: that theirs will become the party of tax cuts and PC catechisms.

If this happens, the Democrats may lose minority support when up against a Republican Party that is hot-blooded and willing to spend. The unprecedented nature of Trump’s first fiscal response to compensate for the economic wreckage of coronavirus, a package worth $2.3trn, much of which went directly to Americans through their bank accounts or unemployment benefits, is not to be downplayed.

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The GOP’s greatest liability, however, remains Trump himself. In the short term, there is the awkwardness – to put it mildly – of his refusal to concede the election. Trump’s would-be successors, such as Tucker Carlson, must keep from alienating his still passionate base while also managing not to tie themselves to the mast of what is at this point a sinking ship. It’s a delicate line to tread, and it may not become easier after January, as Trump seems unlikely to quieten down on Twitter after his term expires.

Cass and his circle hope for a straight fight for the 2024 nomination between a candidate in the older, more reputable model and a candidate in the new, Trumpist one. Those in the former camp include Nikki Haley (a former South Carolina governor who served in the Trump administration), Tom Cotton (an Arkansas senator who took Trump’s side on the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer, but is staunchly neoconservative on foreign policy), or a moderate such as John Kasich (the former Ohio governor who supported Biden’s campaign and hopes for patronage in his administration).

In the latter camp are Josh Hawley (possibly too polished to capture Trump’s base), Carlson (talented, has no political experience, but that hardly stopped Trump), and the Florida senator Marco Rubio (whose aides have a habit of reshaping him in the image of the latest intellectual fad on the right, to limited effect).

Trump was never going to become an éminence grise like Barack Obama, but his threat to run for the presidency in 2024 will fray nerves in both Republican camps aspiring to the succession. A three-way fight between, say, Trump, Carlson and Cotton might deliver the nomination to Cotton by dividing the economic-populist vote, at the cost of splitting the base and dooming the party’s prospects.

Carlson is especially eager not to go head to head with Trump, but a reckoning seems inevitable. Even if Trump doesn’t run again – some believe the president will be content with starting a news network or something similar – he will be an American Nigel Farage, or even an Enoch Powell, pressuring the party from the right, threatening to destroy its fortunes.

****

Another threat to the GOP comes from an unexpected quarter: the possible consummation of one of US conservatism’s dearest aspirations. With the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a 6-3 conservative majority has been solidified. Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s other two appointments, appear to be moderates, fairly likely to go along with an attack on Roe vs Wade – the 1973 decision legalising abortion nationwide – but reluctant to launch one themselves. Barrett is a paladin in comparison and is as likely as anyone to lead a charge against the ruling.

Overturning Roe would allow states to regulate abortion, with the result that it would become illegal under most conditions in heartland states such as Arkansas, where popular opinion is against it, and would remain available on the coasts, where opinion is in favour.

It may seem strange to suggest that this outcome – the great desideratum of the US right for four decades – might undermine the conservative movement, but the significance of abortion in the conservative coalition can scarcely be overstated. It is the glue that ties big business to big Bible, makes Catholic professors and Protestant plumbers forget their differences – the closest equivalent on the American right to the “social justice” convictions of the left.

To overturn this precedent would not end abortion in the US, but it would mean many heartland Americans would no longer feel that laws they disagreed with were being imposed on them by Washington. The pre-Trump model of the party, marrying secular suburban businessmen with zealous evangelicals, might cease to function. Without this moral motivation, the movement would be forced to rely more on economic, cultural – or racial – grievance, with uncertain prospects of success.

Knowing this, the Court may choose to keep its counsel on Roe.

The other obstacle to the transformation of the Republican Party into a post-Trumpist working-class party is the machinery of the party itself – the donors, think tanks and concatenations of Chambers of Commerce which Trump, for all his sound and fury, did not fundamentally disrupt.

Recruiting staff for his administration was largely a matter of drawing from the more robustly conservative Heritage Foundation rather than the softer- edged American Enterprise Institute. Trump’s tax cuts, withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, Supreme Court picks and rollback of emissions standards were of a piece with past Republican administrations.

****

Trump’s heterodoxy lay chiefly in four policy areas: a protectionist approach to trade, and hostility to China, Nato and US engagement abroad. His stance on the first two issues has since become almost bipartisan, while Biden has pledged to reverse Trump’s approach to Nato and foreign affairs.

There is a bit more scaffolding – new think tanks and policy journals, sympathetic elements in the Republican movement – available to a future GOP administration with similar inclinations on foreign and domestic policy to Trump. But even for a figure genuinely committed to these positions, the pressure to slide back towards Atlanticism and intervention abroad, and fiscal discipline at home, will be strong from the bulk of the party and the congressional delegation. This should content American allies in Europe, as much as it discourages America’s “new right”.

From a leaderless party in opposition, many kinds of criticism will be made of the Biden administration. Some will sound more like the old Republican Party, rapping a Democratic president’s knuckles in vintage deficit-hawk fashion for spending too much on coronavirus relief stimulus. Others will be newer: rumours of Biden’s possible cancellation by executive order of student debt is already being called an elitist move by populist Republicans, one designed to benefit the Democratic upper middle class of lawyers and doctors, not the working class.

As with the Democrats between 2016 and 2020, it is likely to remain unclear what the GOP will look like until close to the next election. Much will remain the same, too, of course: the culture wars will rumble on, and the party as a whole is eager to train its assembled guns on Biden at the first sign of any ground yielded to the forces rallied behind “defunding the police” or the Green New Deal. Biden may not give them too many chances to do so – a prospect that bodes ill for progressives and conservatives alike. 

Nick Burns is a New Statesman contributing writer

[see also: How the doctrine of “originalism” is reshaping US democracy]

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump