If Trump loses, the battle for the Republican Party’s soul matters – they could find someone smarter and more dangerous

If the Trumpists find a more competent front man to lead the GOP, that’s when you have to worry

James Moore
Saturday 01 August 2020 15:49 BST
Donald Trump on delaying the election and mail-in voting: It will be the 'most inaccurate and fraudulent in history'

Donald Trump’s suggestion that the US election be postponed shouldn’t come as a great surprise. He might not admit it but he’ll have seen the polling. It’s sufficiently bad that in many quarters it’s already assumed that he’s lost.

This is still quite a leap given how volatile the outlook is and his previous defying of the odds (which have contracted a bit in recent days).

But enough people have taken his defeat as a certainty to start a debate over the future of the Republican Party.

Bret Stephens, a Conservative writer for The New York Times, defined this as a battle between the “What Were We Thinking” side of the party, keen to hurry back to what it was when Paul Ryan was its star, and the “Didn’t Go Far Enough” arm of Trumpist true believers and the cynics who have allied with them.

The opening salvos have already been exchanged. A recent example was congresswoman Liz Cheney’s backing for Anthony Fauci – “America’s doctor” – and her “real men wear masks” tweet which, among other things, provoked a fierce backlash from Trump and his loyalists.

While this is playing out there’s another strand of thinking that says it doesn’t much matter. The Grand Old Party is toast. The alt-right rabbit hole down which it has dived will destroy it because, demographics.

They have been steadily shifting. Whites, from whom the Trumpist Republicans draw almost all their support, will soon lose their majority.

But it’s a dangerously complacent view to see the doom of the GOP in this.

Even armed with a majority in both the Senate and the House, which is quite possible, a new President Biden will face a very difficult situation. The pandemic has devastated the US economy and dealing with the aftermath will define the early part of his tenure.

However moderate he proves to be, he will face the massed ranks of America’s bellicose Conservative media, its army of conspiracy theorists, trolls, bots and pedlars of falsehoods. These are what Anne Applebaum, in her book The Twilight of Democracy would refer to as “clercs”, whom she identifies as having played a key role in the rise of various authoritarian populists around Europe (including one Boris Johnson).

A situation of high unemployment, global tension, and the fallout from the virus, will be catnip to them.

Joe Biden’s tactic to date has largely involved keeping his head down and letting Trump lose the election for him. It’s hard to argue with that because it’s working. But even if he doesn’t have to raise his game prior to reaching office, he’ll surely need to shape up when he’s in it.

If he can’t, or won’t, a restive public, disillusioned Democrats staying home, and our old friends gerrymandering and voter suppression, could deliver a Republican revival. It’s happened before.

And if the Trumpists win the internal debate, which looks highly likely, and find among the number a smarter, more competent front man? One capable of finding a way to temper their message sufficiently to reduce the intensity of some of the demographic headwinds the party faces?

That’s when you have to worry. Trump has indulged in far right rhetoric, sent federal agents into cities like Portland to bundle peaceful protesters into vans, filled key positions with incompetent cronies, trampled over hallowed American conventions, pardoned his crooked friends, thumbed his nose at the US constitution when it suits. I could go on in that vein. And on and on.

Yet when push came to shove, when the pandemic held open the opportunity to really tighten the screw, as Viktor Orban did in Hungary, he didn’t grasp it.

More recently, federal agents have withdrawn from Portland and he doesn’t have the authority to postpone the election because that would require the consent of Congress and the Democrats control the House. There’s also his incompetence to consider, which, allied to his narcissism, has surely played a role in preventing him from doing worse than he has.

His successor, whoever that is (Tom Cotton? Tucker Carlson?), will probably be less self-obsessed, more skilled at avoiding pitfalls, better at reading the room, better at pushing the buttons necessary to further the sort of authoritarian project seen in parts of Europe.

That’s a frightening prospect and it isn’t just a problem for America. It’s a problem for what we used to know as “the free world”.

Biden and the Democrats have to be alive to this, because I wouldn’t be optimistic that old school Republicans, who say they still believe in things like the rule of law, pluralism, democracy and such like – the old party of Lincoln – can snatch it back given the allure Trump and Trumpism still hold for its base.

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