In times of turmoil, political parties are often decreed “dead”: no longer electorally viable thanks to internal rifts between members whose ideas are fundamentally incompatible. These claims are almost always overstated: parties rarely die or splinter. But calls for secession from certain sects within a party can inspire internal reform.
It’s at this crossroads that the post-Trump Republican Party, for the moment shutout of the executive and the legislative majority, finds itself. Prophecies of death aside, there’s no doubt the Republican party will endure, despite all its current convulsions.
But the question its voters and political observers are eager to discover is what Trump’s relationship with the party, and vice versa, will look like moving forward?
The former president has, with his characteristic extemporaneous style, declared his intent to form a third-party.
Of course, Trump has a history of flirting with third-parties: he sought the Reform Party’s presidential nomination in 2000, even winning the primary in California. Ultimately, Trump lost to Pat Buchanan and his association with the Reform Party, which had influence thanks to the performance of Ross Perrot in 1992 and 1996, gained him little. Nor did the Reform Party turn into a durable home for political malcontents.
With this in mind, one has to wonder, could Trump really parlay Republican dissatisfaction with the establishment into a successful third-party?
The difficulties of electoral politics–especially roadblocks like ballot access laws that have been thrown up by the two major-parties–would suggest not. Perrot, a nationally influential political outsider, is not unlike Trump in many regards and his third-party was ultimately not durable.
But Trump is also something of a unique phenomenon in American politics. Charismatic populist figures like William Jennings Bryan successfully rode popular support into state and local office. But Trump was the first populist to win a federal election. And his brand of populism is a particularly strange one. The roots of populism are in agrarianism, and specifically in defending agrarian ways of life against the threat posed by industrialism. Yet, Trump’s favorite supporters were American manufacturers and his quasi-mercantilist “America First” economic policy sought to protect manufacturing.
Trump has always been an odd Republican, too. There’s no doubt that Trump’s policy, which favored federal intervention into areas, especially markets, right-wing thought traditionally wanted government kept out of, uprooted Republican ideology. That he managed to get former Tea Partiers, who at one time were also thought likely to split the Republican party, to defend his energetic administration is also something of a coup.
Within the last several decades, the split between Republicans has been between the ideologues and the pragmatists. Again, this was a deep fissure that Tea Partiers really brought to the forefront. Since George W. Bush, the battle between ideological conservatives, who believe the party needs to be driven by principle, and more establishment figures, who argue principles really don’t matter much if the party isn’t in power, has been played out very publicly.
And Trump, who is certainly not an ideologue and whose braggadocio is in conflict with the timidity of the victory-conscious establishment, has only confused the issue. To some Republicans, there’s no future for the party unless Trump is purged; he’s too much of a distraction. To others, Trump is a populist party who embodies the will of the party’s base; he’s a beloved crusader who can’t be forsaken without betraying party voters.
Which version hues closer to the truth is something that can only be learned through the behaviors of party figures and voters in subsequent elections.
But there are clear-cut positives and negatives to a Republican Party with Trump and one without him.
The case for a Republican Party divorced of Trump is simple: it would rid the party of a divisive figure. It might also help re-establish Republicans as a center-right party, opposed to big spending and government intervention in private decisions. While there are certainly a cadre of Republican voters who approve of what Trump’s done to the party, he has also confused its identity. And that doesn’t necessarily play well with third-party voters.
The case against a Trump-free Republican party is also clear-cut: if Trump has no future with the GOP, it’s likely not because he doesn’t want one; it’s because he decided to set out on his own and establish his own party identity. And that will certainly split the base and make Republicans less viable in future elections.
As with any issue of electoral politics, there are tradeoffs to be made. And, in this respect, Trump is completely prototypical: his future in politics, whether with the Republican Party or a party of his own creation, is fundamentally a conflict between sentiment and practicality.
Trump’s staunchest supporters are not unlike the Tea Partiers in the fervency of their beliefs and their unwillingness to temper these for political expediences. And maybe they have a point: after all Trump won in 2020, subverting the expectations of many people who are well-informed about electoral politics.
On the other hand, data from the two elections that have occurred since 2016 show there is no real down-ballot Trump coalition. And Republicans have certainly not thrived since then. This is, of course, little concern to those who believe in Trump’s message. Just as the power of Trump’s message is of little concern to the political strategists whose job it is to make sure Republicans can win elections and put their ideas into action.
Which argument you find more persuasive very much depends on whether you’re a pragmatist or an ideologue. And the ultimate merits or demerits of Trump’s impact on the Republican Party, whether that’s limited to his presidential term or continues into the future, will be similarly divided.