The Next Republican Presidential Candidate Will Tell Us What the Party Really Stands For
Let’s call it what it was: an attempted coup.
Not just the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters that left five people dead, but everything the outgoing president has done since his November 2020 election defeat.
The refusal to concede, the near-constant airing of baseless conspiracy theories on voter fraud, the piles of lawsuits, the brazen attempts to pressure local officials to “find" votes. It’s all of a piece.
Everyone knew Donald Trump would be a stress test for American democratic norms. The good news is democracy held. Officials (mostly) did their jobs and the court system treated Trump’s legal team of disgraced conspiracy theorists with the contempt they deserved — even the supreme court packed with Republican appointees didn’t bend to Trump’s will.
Democracy survived, but the thing to remember is that democracy survived this time.
Because the United States still came relatively close to falling into an authoritarian dictatorship. And their would-be dictator was not charismatic, or intelligent, or eloquent, or a strategic thinker. He was, and is, an impulsive, narcissistic short term thinker who can barely talk in coherent sentences.
But still, he almost managed it.
What if the next one who tries it is all of the things Trump was not?
Because Trumpist politics doesn’t end with Trump. Firstly, because his own political career may not be at an end. Another run for the Republican nomination in 2024 is a good bet (provided a potential second impeachment doesn’t bar him from holding office). Even if he doesn’t — or can’t — do so, or doesn’t win the nomination, there are others who have been watching Trump whip up his base into an anti democratic frenzy and might want a piece of that.
Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley have been the most blatant in sticking to Trumpian political talking points and supporting their leaders' attempted coup. They may not have expected Trump to succeed, but they supported him in hopes of inheriting the support of his angry white voter base for their own presidential runs in 2024.
Unfortunately for them the outrage at the Capitol insurrection is such that they are facing calls to resign or be expelled from the senate. Hitching their wagons to a vehicle that was driving off a cliff, it turns out, was not such a smart idea.
But they could ride out the outrage. It’s worth remembering that while what happened shook some Republicans enough for them to withdraw their objections to the certification of the election results over 100 Republicans still objected. The Republican party remains the party of Trump, at least for now. And sure, the likes of Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham might have found their spines in order to certify the election results, but they only condemned Trump’s attempts to steal a second term once it became clear it would not succeed. Make no mistake, if there was a chance that Trump could have succeeded in his quest, senior Republicans like those three would have supported him all the way to stealing the White House.
There are plenty of Republicans hoping their party goes in a more moderate direction in the post-Trump era. They will be looking for a candidate in 2024 more in the Mitt Romney mold than Donald Trump. Doubtless Mike Pence will be hoping so, having toed the line of retaining his moderate (for a Republican) creditentials while stoically refusing to criticise Trump publically or privately — hoping to also win the support of his base.
But there is no guarantee of a reset. 2024 could bring a Trump candidacy, or one of his offspring. Or Hawley or Cruz could run under a more presidential — but equally authoritarian — brand of Trumpism.
If that happens, will the Republican party maintain its spine? Don’t bet on it. As soon as there’s a sniff of power, McConnell, Pence et al will once again line behind Hawley, Cruz, or even Trump for a second time.
Who the next Republican presidential candidate is, and how the party deal with and react to it, is the next great challenge for the GOP. Do they come back to democracy, or head further down the authoritarian path?