Why Trump’s Populism (If Not Rhetoric) Is The Future Of The GOP

As the days leading up to the 2020 election shrink, prognosticators are already predicting the future. Diversity loving neo-liberals like Ronald Brownstein are already going full steam ahead on the GOP coalition’s xenophobic, rapidly shrinking base will find itself increasing unable to win elections and thus enforce its agenda through judicial fiat and erecting structural barriers to change. Other analysts from the middle to right are putting forth more thought provoking analysis than “Orange Man and GOP are bad.” One of those is Sean Trende and he raises good points about the GOP and why populism is its future.

Trende raises the following points about Trump in comparison to Rubio – 1) Trump ran as an unconventional Republican which helped defuse long-time Democratic arguments against the party along wealthy and social conservatism, 2) Trump’s appeal was more efficiently distributed than past GOP candidates (ie. it’s nice Romney won Texas by sixteen points but he still lost every other battleground state minus North Carolina), and 3) Trump actually updated the GOP policy agenda. On an anecdotal level I see this all the time. Younger conservatives don’t like Trump and want to see another Reagan. Well, kids, got news for you. That is not going to happen.

Reagan was successful because he utilized the foils of the USSR to unite voters and he also ran on cutting taxes. By the time he was done and HW had had a term, most of that policy agenda had been achieved. Republicans than had to focus on short-term wins which kept the suburbs and kept the defense hawk/social conservative/fiscal hawk fusion. This worked for a time but it made every presidential path extremely narrow (ie. 2000 and 2004).

While we have seen an erosion of GOP support in traditional red states like Georgia and Texas – this was always destined to happen. What we have seen is a resurgence of GOP prospects in the Midwest and a more geographically diverse coalition than one nested solely in the West and Sunbelt.

Now, Trump might not win reelection. In fact, he probably won’t. While the establishment can hope Trump’s populism will fade away into the dustbin of history under Biden the odds of this happening are slim. The GOP is now far more united around ideology and class than it has ever been. Most GOP think – tanks remain wedded to the old ideology of tax cuts for the rich being the end all be all but Trump, love or hate him, has helped new ideas and thought provoking analysts come out into the light.

To those like Brownstein, these ideas and analysts (ie. Tucker Carlson) might seen xenophobic and backward, but they connect with middle America. More importantly, the ideas seem more wedded to success than ideology. In turn, though it is ignored, Democrats are going to find it increasingly hard to appeal to such a diverse coalition of college and non-college educated, minorities, the wealthy and the poor and so on. We have already seen Trump jump on this by peeling off black men and Hispanics in droves from the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, his numbers with college educated voters – at least relative to 2016 this go-round, are roughly the same. Take away the brash and rough rhetoric and who is to say it would not be higher?

Much will depend on who leads the GOP into the future and political events we cannot foresee. It is possible a strong candidate through force of will could win a national election on pre-Trump GOP platform. It would just be unlikely and see minimal policy success. Ideas for a world 30 years ago usually don’t work in the now – no matter how they are tweaked.


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