In his 2018 documentary American Dharma, Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris charges headfirst into Steve Bannon, the controversial political strategist who got Donald Trump elected to the White House. Bannon, the film’s subject, gamely parries each question with lengthy tirades against elitism. “If you gave me the choice between being governed by the first 100 people to show up in red ball caps at a Trump rally, versus the first 100 guys to walk in at Davos with their tickets [for the World Economic Forum meeting], I’ll take the working-class people,” Bannon muses. Morris, sitting behind the camera, shifts gears: What does any of this have to do with immigration and corporate tax cuts? Bannon pauses, and the film cuts to the next scene.
If Bannon had an answer, he could have solved a riddle that’s currently stumping the Republican Party: What do tax cuts have to do with working-class quality of life? If you asked Ronald Reagan, he would have espoused the brilliance of trickle-down economics. Today, we know that didn’t really work. The answer to Morris’s question—essentially, what do free markets have to do with community welfare?—is, simply, “not much.”
Republican insiders are realizing the fragility of this conceptual relationship, which held the party together, even defined it, for much of the last century. Free-market capitalism created 20th-century America. Today, combative Republican factions are yanking at their party in a national game of tug-of-war to decide the direction of a post-Trump GOP. After decades of stagnation, his explosive presidency has created an opportunity for different types of Republicans to engage with the electorate and make their voices heard.
Democrats may call 2020 the most important election of our lifetimes, one that will shape everything from the U.S. Supreme Court balance to decades of climate policy—a battle, they like to say, for the soul of the nation. But Republicans are equally concerned with 2024, when Trump’s successor must pick up the pieces of his chaotic mandate and forge them into policy, setting a course for the party in the 21st century. The battle for the soul of the GOP has just begun.
The next wave of probable Republican presidential candidates can be divided any number of ways, including by ideology and policy agenda. But when analyzing the party’s overall direction, it’s simplest to split them into three informal factions: Pre-Trump, Post-Trump and More Trump.
Appalling as it might sound to the president’s detractors, More Trump represents a traditional contingent for any government: politicians currently affiliated with the White House who say they’ll continue Trump’s legacy while pushing a more robust platform. The most obvious candidate is Vice President Mike Pence, the socially conservative former Indiana governor whose 2024 odds looked better before Trump slapped him with heading the nation’s doomed coronavirus task force. Critics say Pence lacks the charisma needed to truly pick up Trump’s mantle, but he does offer a more mature, diplomatic disposition than the current president. His ambitions could be disrupted, though, by the other obvious candidate in this category: Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son. The firebrand scion has denied wanting to run in 2024, despite GOP polling putting him in the top three choices of hypothetical candidates.
A smattering of well-known politicians also fit into this Trump-extension category. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been one of Trump’s staunchest supporters and is not-so-secretly planning to run. Many speculate that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after giving several high-profile speeches in Iowa in July, is laying the groundwork for a values-based, tough-on-China candidacy. Pompeo’s odds, like Pence’s, wouldn’t necessarily plummet if Trump loses his re-election. But it wouldn’t help him.
The second faction, Pre-Trump, comprises more traditional neoconservatives who wish to turn back the clock to the early 2000s; those who think Trump was an aberration, a one-off accident. They may push an aggressive foreign-policy agenda and emphasize old-school tax cuts. Some popular names belong here, including Trump’s runner-up from the 2016 race, Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, who spent this year aggressively touring the right-wing speaking circuit. Rick Scott, the junior senator from Florida, spent US$19,000 to run an anti-Dem attack ad in Iowa in January, weeks ahead of the Democratic caucuses; insiders took it as a clear signal he’s running. Arguably the most interesting candidate in this group, though, is Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. A woman of Indian descent, Haley has deftly navigated Trump’s world without sycophantically agreeing with every word he says, making her an especially strong hypothetical contender.
The third group, the Post-Trumpers, enjoys support from intellectual Republicans hoping to steer trendy populism away from Trump’s blunt nationalism and dog whistles. They are well-educated senators, all in their 40s, like the promising Josh Hawley from Missouri; Florida’s Marco Rubio, hoping to recover after a mediocre 2016 presidential run; Tom Cotton, a brash and candid politician from Arkansas; Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, who’s bounced between openly criticizing Trump and supporting him; and Mike Lee of Utah, who rose to fame during the Tea Party movement in 2010.
While their priorities differ, each of these men want to tilt the party away from the idea of economic libertarianism as a panacea, and would consider stricter regulation, especially against big tech companies. The common thread: they want to protect Americans from digital privacy breaches, Chinese competition and needless foreign wars, while investing in local communities and businesses.
Oren Cass, the executive director of the conservative think tank American Compass, is banking on these men to usher in a new era of American conservatism. He’s written extensively about the need for Republicans to return to traditional, family-first values, and hopes this movement will challenge the GOP establishment—political bigwigs like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and media outlets like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal—which, Cass fears, will lazily backslide into free-market Reaganism if left unchecked.
“While a genuine conservatism would continue to prize very highly the values of individual and economic freedom, limited government and free enterprise, it would also recognize that there are a lot of things that markets don’t do,” Cass says. “And there are some things that markets do that, frankly, aren’t very good for other important conservative values in terms of family and community health and social stability.”
Yuval Levin, founding editor of the conservative quarterly National Affairs, predicts some fundamental GOP policies will withstand this transition, including stances on health care, welfare and education. But the shift away from Reaganism is overdue, and Levin boils it down to demographics.
“There is a need for a generational transition in American politics in general,” he says, pointing out that both presidential candidates (and the two Democratic runners-up) are all in their 70s. Nancy Pelosi is 80; Mitch McConnell is 78. Three of the last four presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Trump—were, bizarrely, all born in the summer of 1946. Levin sees this baby-boomer power clutch as proof that America’s establishment politics, on both sides of the aisle, desperately need to be refreshed.
“You find a lot of people saying, in our politics, ‘I don’t recognize my country anymore,’ ” Levin says. “We need politicians who recognize their country, who are at home in 21st-century America, at home in a much more diverse society that doesn’t expect things to ever go back to the conditions—either economic or cultural—of the ’50s and early ’60s.”
Transition is not new for the party, which has swung like a pendulum between private interests and working-class populism throughout its 166-year history. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times in August, “Trumpism will survive Trump because the history of the modern Republican Party is the history of paradigm shifts.”
In her book To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, historian Heather Cox Richardson distills this dichotomy to “the profound tension between America’s two fundamental beliefs, equality of opportunity and protection of property.” She sketches the circumstances that gave rise to three of the nation’s most renowned Republican presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. Each won by inspiring the working classes during a tumultuous period. For Lincoln, it was relatively poor northerners who opposed wealthy slave-owning southerners’ westward expansion; Roosevelt grappled with labour rights during the industrial revolution; and Eisenhower enacted postwar economic policies that elevated the middle class.
Each time, after a decade or two passed, the working-class party retrenched toward big business, small government and the protection of property, only nominally supporting equal opportunity. “The country was in thrall to a pattern that would reoccur each time the party rededicated itself to its founding principles,” Cox Richardson writes. “It would become the central story of the Republican Party.”
One could easily transpose those two pillars—equal opportunity and protection of property—onto today’s ideological battle. Establishing equal opportunity means elevating working-class communities (job creation, crime reduction, etc.), while the protection of property, in Cox Richardson’s interpretation, means protection for corporations to run their businesses with minimal government intervention. Ronald Reagan managed to intertwine those two principles so successfully that many Republicans, as Brooks put it, “stuck, mostly through dumb inertia, to an anti-government zombie Reaganism long after Reagan was dead and even though the nation’s problems were utterly different from what they were when he was alive.”
When defunct Reaganism and massive wealth disparity became the problem, Donald Trump promised a solution. Like more successful Republican candidates before him, he focused on opportunities for the working and middle classes. He won the election by blaming the nation’s problems on notional, faraway forces encumbering everyday Americans: elitism, the deep state, Mexico, China, Islam, immigrants you’ll never meet stealing jobs you’ll never apply for. In frightening ways, and with new scapegoats inspired by xenophobia, Trump mimicked the language of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower, pitching the Republican Party back toward a kind of twisted version of equality for all.
Except that equality didn’t manifest. An arguably senile New York billionaire, it turns out, did not understand the working classes, and quickly refilled the White House swamp with stodgy Reaganists and neoconservatives. Trump promised to keep auto plants like one in Lordstown, Ohio, open; it closed in 2019. He promised to save America’s dying coal industry; since 2016, numerous mines have closed, coal stocks are down and there are about 1,000 fewer jobs in the industry nationwide. Trump’s landmark tax bill in 2017—his government’s biggest piece of legislation, and the country’s most significant tax reform in three decades—provided relief only temporarily to individuals, but permanently slashed the corporate tax rate from 35 per cent to 21. His distrust of public institutions proved fatally misguided when the coronavirus pandemic struck; by late August, the virus had killed more than 183,000 Americans.
While Trump got elected as a working-class populist, he didn’t end up governing like one. But his legacy was never going to be legislative. As Steve Bannon proudly boasted to the Guardian in 2019, “We’ve turned the Republicans into a working-class party.” The demand is real. The frustration exists. Even if a traditional, Pre-Trump Republican leads the ticket in 2024, that leader will be forced to run on a populist agenda, once again promising relief for working-class families.
As for Trump himself, no one knows how influential he will be after he leaves. His bedtime tweets in 2025 will obviously matter less if he loses this November. Regardless, Trumpism—the trendy nickname for right-wing populism blended with ardent nationalism, a withdrawal from foreign engagements and a swirl of xenophobia—will survive. The Republicans who gleefully rode to victory in 2016 believe they’ve found a new way to win, a new language to drive home their message. It is the language of populism, of distilled hatred toward Silicon Valley elites, hypocritical celebrities and latte-sipping urbanites. It is, in some respects, the retrograde language of a betrayed working class.
Cass, of American Compass, compares Trump to an earthquake. An earthquake can show which buildings are structurally flawed, destroy old, weak ones, and even make room for something better. But the earthquake itself does not rebuild. That job belongs to someone else.
This article appears in print in the October 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The GOP after Trump.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.