Donald Trump’s cultural and long-term political legacy will be debated for decades. But his legacy for the Republican Party will be tested far sooner than that. He has the power to leave the GOP and the conservative movement intact or disastrously divided. It will all depend on whether Trump runs for president in 2024.
For the good of the country, his party, and himself, he shouldn’t.
It’s true and recognized by people with open minds that Trump catalyzed some overdue policy shifts in Washington while making inroads with crucial voter blocs. But his deficiencies as a candidate and as a leader compromised and in some cases wasted those gains. The only way for the Republican Party to secure and build on those gains is to move on from Trump himself.
Although the GOP lost control of Congress and the White House in 2020, the results showed compellingly that the party is resilient and continues to have strong electoral appeal. As Sean Trende wrote in these pages in June, “the 2020 election was a particularly close affair” despite its having taken place after a 33% economic contraction in the second quarter, after the Trump White House in some ways fumbled handling the pandemic, and after Democrats outspent Republicans.
Once the election numbers were crunched, it was clear that the former president attracted voters outside his party’s base, most notably among Hispanics, whom the left-of-center EquisLabs estimated gave Trump about a third of their votes. And his gains among them weren’t limited to conservative areas of the country.
But that doesn’t mean the party needs Trump as its nominee in 2024. For the 2020 gains were the party’s as a whole, not his alone. He was running in 2020 as a candidate more clearly aligned with his party than he had been in 2016, when the conventional wisdom was that he would govern significantly less conservatively than would other Republican candidates. Four years later, he had nominated three conservative Supreme Court justices and energetically defended religious liberty and Second Amendment rights — long-standing conservative and GOP causes.
This shows the conservative policy program is not in need of drastic reform. A hard line on immigration does not repel Hispanic voters, social conservatism does not repel blue-collar swing voters, and tough-on-crime does not lose the messaging war against “defund the police.”
The 2016 election showed that Republican presidential candidates can win states that Democrats held for decades, specifically Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. But in 2020, Trump also lost those states plus Arizona and Georgia, meaning he’s just as capable of losing red states as flipping blue ones.
GOP losses of House seats in 2018, plus Trump’s defeat and the Republican loss of the Senate two years later, were all due to dramatic shifts of votes in the suburbs. Suburbs have become more diverse and more educated. Many of those voters gave Trump a chance in 2016, but after a while, he repelled them; Democrats used Trump as a means of sweeping 40 House seats into their new majority in 2018.
In 2020, President Joe Biden beat Hillary Clinton’s numbers in suburbs by an average of 5 percentage points. In Michigan and Wisconsin, that shift was only 3 points. Because Trump won by such small margins in 2016, the shift was enough to flip those states to Biden. The shift was much more pronounced in Georgia, with Biden besting Clinton’s numbers by a whopping 8 points. As Trump is now a known quantity, it is implausible to think he could recapture his 2016 momentum.
Despite presiding over, and indeed fostering, a booming economy and relative stability in international affairs, Trump’s job approval never rose above 50% in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Obviously, some voters loved him. But he was not widely liked. If he ran again, his penchant for catering mostly to voters in his base rather than winning independents and his insatiable demand for political loyalty would dangerously split the Republican presidential primary, for he would force opponents to separate themselves from him.
This would create two problems. First, Trump’s unmatched and apparently unquenchable sense of grievance would roar back to the top of national attention. In recent months, Trump has trained his fire on Republicans and conservatives he thinks wronged him, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Attorney General Bill Barr, and even Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Second, Trump regards any challenge or lack of willingness to defend him at any cost as unforgivable. In the GOP presidential primary, Trump wouldn’t think twice about attacking the strong records of other attractive candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
This would force them to distinguish themselves from Trump, which would alienate them from his voters, whom the party has worked to retain and attract since 2016. As the GOP’s most recent president, Trump would be in the strongest position in the primary to define the party and demand conformity. Challengers are at a big disadvantage. Trump’s fundraising capabilities and his grip on state Republicans give him a significant edge before a single vote is cast.
If Trump won the nomination and then lost the general election, it could undo all the work Republican leaders have undertaken to maintain the inroads he first made with Hispanic and blue-collar voters. A less volatile and divisive 2024 nominee could retain and even strengthen the party’s hold on those groups and at the same time stop the GOP hemorrhaging in the suburbs.
If Trump won the nomination, he would almost certainly refuse to accept a loss in the general election, just as he already is now. His predilection for refusing to accept results dates back to the 2016 primaries, when he insisted that Ted Cruz “stole” the Iowa caucus. He demanded a do-over because of “fraud” committed by the Texas senator. Trump also could not accept his inability in 2016 to win the popular vote. Even though he had won the Electoral College and the presidency, he insisted that it was fraud and illegally cast ballots, especially in California, that had given Clinton her margin in the popular vote.
Trump’s behavior in the wake of his 2020 loss was much more pernicious since he had the power of the presidency behind him and the loyalty of most of the Republican Party. He filed numerous lawsuits in the weeks after Election Day. When he failed on the legal front, Trump pressured state election officials, the Justice Department, and state Republican parties to “find the fraud” that would overturn the results. Now, more than halfway through 2021, Trump continues to insist he won, applauding and endorsing the fatuous “vote audits” in Arizona and Georgia and a possible one in Pennsylvania.
The Republican Party and the nation can ill-afford another such test of the electoral system. Another slew of unproven allegations of fraud would create more chaos, which would, in turn, give Democrats cover for abhorrent power-grab legislation such as the For the People Act, which they already, absurdly, present as necessary to “save our democracy.”
Much would be lost by a new Trump candidacy, and, perhaps just as importantly, the division it would create is almost certainly unnecessary. In 2016, there were two types of candidates: Trump and Against Trump. In 2024, by contrast, the party can field a range of candidates who represent neither the creaking establishment structure nor the wrecking ball swinging its way.
Parties adapt like organisms. Florida and Texas, which remain crucial to the Republican Party’s ability to win national elections, demonstrate this. In 2016, they put up two top-tier candidates for the nomination, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Both are still in the Senate, but the buzziest candidates from Florida and Texas right now are their respective governors, Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott.
Rubio and Cruz were perfect examples of the disconnect between the ideological and establishment wings. Cruz was viewed by some as a bigger risk than Trump. They believed he would ice out GOP centrists. Ideological conservatives, by contrast, liked Cruz’s willingness to take on the establishment. Rubio, on the other hand, was an establishment dream come true, at least on paper — good-looking, Cuban, knowledgeable, and disciplined. But he probably sealed his 2016 doom in 2013 with his leading role in the attempted bipartisan immigration reform bill with Chuck Schumer. It was unlikely to make him attractive to a party in which centrists were not champing for increased immigration and hawks flatly opposed it.
Rubio and Cruz proved to be the opposite of possible consensus candidates. But DeSantis and Abbott don’t scare either wing of the party. Their national profiles are rising organically, not through hype campaigns but on a combination of their records and a right-time, right-place emergence. Abbott has been considered a future presidential contender for nearly a decade, and DeSantis boasts a strong record, as a congressman and, before that, a federal prosecutor and JAG officer. He has won praise from Trump and polls well among Trump supporters.
The party seems to be getting much better at recognizing talent with a wide ideological appeal on the Right. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott falls into this category as well.
The benefits of letting this approach play out are potentially enormous. A replay of the divisive 2016 primary would make Trump’s most promising opponents less attractive to the very voters they’d need if they won the nomination. The former president may not have been a disaster for the party in the 2020 election, but he has been one since the election, costing Republicans both Georgia Senate seats and thus control of the upper chamber. He has also steadily delegitimized the electoral system among Republican voters. He looks like a guy who took his poker winnings and lost them at the slots.
There is also the matter of who will represent the Democratic Party at the top of the ticket in 2024. It is unusual for a president to decline to run for reelection, but Joe Biden was older, 78, when he took the oath of office than any of his predecessors were at any point in their presidencies, and he’d be 82 at the beginning of a second term. If he doesn’t run, Republicans are likely to be even stronger among the working class, for Biden appeals to them in a way that Clinton could not. Running Trump, who will be 78 years old in 2024, would be a huge own goal by Republicans.
If Republicans can move beyond Trump himself, they could strengthen their party for a generation. Instead of suppressing up-and-coming talent, the party could nurture it. Doing so would build much-needed trust between the factions on the Right.
A primary that is competitive but still produces a consensus nominee would channel party energy toward common goals. In 2024, this is within reach. Undercutting that could be the difference between years in the wilderness and putting conservatives squarely in control of the ship of state.