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11 November 2020updated 13 Sep 2021 5:07am

The Republicans are at a crossroads: do they distance themselves from Trump or embrace his appeal?

Some in the party believe that the the creed should live on even as the high priest departs.

By Philip Collins

In The End of History and the Last Man Francis Fukuyama needed a figure to represent the glamour of the celebrity culture that granted to shallow, ambitious men recognition that prevented them from doing harm. There was no better archetype, concluded Fukuyama in 1989, than “a developer like Donald Trump”. Well, Trump developed, and in a way that burst the shackles of wealth that Fukuyama hoped capitalism might impose upon him. Trump wanted power and in this, his least edifying of weeks in a tenure of office that has disgraced the nation he leads, he lost it.

Fukuyama’s point is that the excesses of capital accumulation – the vulgar towers and golf courses – are a gatekeeper that keeps egregious characters out of politics. In this country, newspaper columns once served the same purpose. The truly historic failure of gatekeeping, though, resides with the elders of the Republican Party. Whether Republicans are now willing or able to correct their extraordinary error is the most important question in American politics, because it is about the health of the republic itself.

There never was any great mystery about the character of Trump. Always the semiotic master, he announced himself in his first presidential campaign. In October 2016 Trump went to the civil war cemetery at Gettysburg, the site of Lincoln’s great paean to the virtues of popular democracy. The Gettysburg Address is as close as a secular republic can come to a sacred rite. Trump’s Gettysburg Address, instead, revolved around a baseless accusation, for which he produced no evidence, of huge voter fraud.

Political parties were not envisaged in the American constitution but the task of gatekeeping quickly became theirs. For the most part, they have discharged it well. In 1924 Henry Ford was the most famous man in the US. But when he sought the Democratic Party nomination he got nowhere. The same happened with Huey Long and George Wallace. In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America the Nazi-sympathising aviation hero Charles Lindbergh beats FDR to become president. The truth is better than the fiction. In 1940 Lindbergh did seek to speak at the Republican convention. His application was declined and his ambitions stymied.

The modern Republicans have failed this test appallingly. There has been an honourable “Never Trump” resistance but too many have licensed too much. Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Rudy Giuliani have made fools of themselves, but most culpable of all has been the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who knew that Trump was never fit for office yet who upheld him anyway.

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The complicity of all these sorry characters derives from desperation. The Republicans have won the popular vote in only one of the past eight elections and the intellectual alliance on which the party was founded has come apart. There was always a serious tension between the business-elite apostles of the free market and the conservative views held in that vast obscurity beyond the cities. The fusion held when capitalism was fighting communism, but the elements came apart at the end of the Cold War.

Trump created a new coalition of grievance. His blue-collar Republicanism was restrictive on immigration, protectionist on trade, and isolationist on foreign policy. Trump disdained the language that came naturally to Reagan and the Bushes: the rhetoric of limited government, balancing the federal budget, or the US as the global guarantor of freedom and world trade. As Steven Hayward, author of the two-volume The Age of Reagan put it, “he doesn’t know Friedrich Hayek from Salma Hayek”.

The question now is what follows this charismatic and shameless megalomaniac. There will no doubt be further acts in the tragedy of Trump. It is hard to imagine him leaving the White House before he has taken the whole cast down. When he is finally prevailed upon to go, the Republican Party can then consider its next move. Three options are already being canvassed.

The first is that the creed should live on even as the high priest departs. Despite a torrent of commentary to suggest this is inevitable, Trumpism without Trump lacks any defining charisma. Fatal among populism’s many flaws is its reliance on the populist. Trumpism conducted by Ted Cotton or Josh Hawley is unlikely to be as entertaining.

[see also: Why sick strongmen find refuge in a myth of invincibility]

The second option is to locate those elements of Trump’s appeal that are rooted in material fact. This would reverse the traditional positions of the two main parties. Until 2010 the congressional districts in the bottom 40 per cent of the income distribution were more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. Now, the reverse is true. After the 2018 midterms, the ten richest congressional districts, and 41 of the richest 50, were represented by Democrats. Marco Rubio is emerging as the tribune of what he calls “common-good capitalism”, in which an interventionist state conducts economic policy for the benefit of poorer Americans, including many religious and minority voters.

These demographic and political changes make the third option, which is to hanker for the status quo ante, difficult. Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and a potential contender to lead the Republicans in 2024, may be the voice of a more recent vintage of Republican politics. It tells a story of freedom and enterprise, which resumes a foreign policy rooted in alliances and which seeks to embrace a more diverse and well-educated America. Quite who this option would be talking to is another matter.

Before taking any one of these directions, though, the party needs to recover its moral bearings. It can start by instructing Trump that the jig is up. Then it can try to recall that democracy thrives on tacit compliance and consent; to remember that, as Lincoln first said at Gettysburg, democracy is fragile and America is an experiment which could still end in failure. 

[see also: Without control of the Senate, the Democrats face big challenges. But there is reason for hope]

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This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump