Philip Klein peers into the near future, after Trump has returned to private life, and sees the post-Trump GOP—-
Actually, he doesn’t see a “post-Trump GOP.” He sees a Trump-run GOP, same as now.
What do you do as a party with an unpopular ex-president who nonetheless commands a cult of personality among your base and is well positioned, and fully inclined, to exert his influence over it?
Trump was an active Twitter user before running for president, throughout his campaign, and during his presidency. He has used the forum to generate controversy and lambaste his critics. There is no reason to believe that will stop when he leaves office and every reason to believe that with more time on his hands and fewer constraints, he’ll feel even more freedom to let it rip to his tens of millions of followers. Trump is 73 years old — his mother lived until 88 and his father until 93. It’s quite possible that he could be tweeting for a very long time…
Just imagine the following scenario: During a future Republican presidential primary battle, Trump fires off a series of controversial tweets on the news of the day. Democrats, and the media, line up to attack Trump for spreading hate. How do Republican candidates respond?
Republicans could side with Trump when asked, once again tying themselves to him. Alternatively, they could try to criticize him in an effort to create distance. But doing so would only alienate Trump voters — a segment of the party who any candidate would likely have to win over or at least mollify to capture a nomination. And the famously thin-skinned Trump would not hesitate to attack any Republican candidate who criticizes him as weak and a loser.
Lotta variables here, as Klein acknowledges, starting with the fact that a Trump who serves two terms will obviously command more loyalty among populist Republicans than a Trump who crashes out of office ignominiously next fall. Being seen as a winner is a core part of his appeal; whatever you may think about Mitt Romney and Trump as people, the fact remains that one won and the other lost and parties follow the lead of winners. A two-term Trump will sail into retirement with that perception intact. A one-term Trump won’t, although he’ll do his best to convince fans that he was cheated somehow out of another term that was rightly his.
Either way, even a diminished Trump will retain the loyalty of some share of MAGA Nation in retirement. Granted, maybe not in perpetuity. I can imagine a scenario in which the GOP elects another (Trump-approved) populist president and then the base sides with the new guy on an issue in which Trump is on the other side. For instance, let’s say the party nominates a border-hawk nationalist like Tom Cotton in 2024 and Cotton goes on to win the presidency. Cotton is Trumpy in various ways but conspicuously not on foreign policy — he’s every inch a hawk a la Lindsey Graham and would certainly be more likely to intervene abroad militarily than Trump would be. President Cotton might well have ordered the bombing of Iran a few months ago that Trump canceled at the last minute. If he hits Iran in 2025 and Trump slams him for it on Twitter, with whom would Trump/Cotton voters side?
My guess is they’d side with Cotton. Whether the party succeeds or fails depends upon the success of its actual leader, not the leader in exile. Supporting Cotton would be seen as necessary to protect his chances at reelection in 2028. There’d also be a “rally ’round the flag effect” for a wartime president, as there always is. And MAGA Nation isn’t adamantly anti-interventionist the way they are adamantly anti-illegal-immigration; a strike on Iran wouldn’t be some core betrayal of the populism that got Cotton elected. It’d be a form of Jacksonianism, arguably. Trump himself might think twice about criticizing Cotton for it, fearing that if he did that and the base sided with the sitting president, he’d be humiliated and his influence would never be the same.
But what if the next Republican president isn’t a populist and thus intrinsically suspicious to MAGA-ites? What if it’s Nikki Haley, someone whom grassroots righties distrust but whom they’d grudgingly support in an election in the name of defeating the Democrats? In that case we might end up with a de facto schism within the GOP in which Haley leads 65 percent of the party while Trump effectively directs the most populist 35 percent. How does that work in practice? Negative partisanship is a powerful force that would ensure most of those disgruntled populists reluctantly turned out for her in her reelection campaign, but we’ve never had a situation in modern political history in which a former president idolized by a significant minority of the base is sitting on the sidelines relentlessly criticizing the party’s new leader.
And Trump really might do that. Especially if he was relegated to one term in office and feared being one-upped by a more popular person who followed him. That’s who he is.
You don’t even need a scenario in which another Republican is successfully elected president to see the problems here. As Klein says, it’s unimaginable that Trump would stand by and let the 2024 primaries play out without him not only being a key player but *the* key player. Watching “his” voters shift their attention from him to the party’s next crop of candidates would be poisonous to his ego. He’ll certainly try to insert himself into the race. How do you handle that if you’re Mike Pence or Haley? I think it’s possible for an establishmentarian to win the nomination over the objection of the populist base, but what happens if Trump agitates against the nominee for having betrayed his legacy in their policy program or whatever? Would that be enough to sink the nominee? Would the nominee thus be forced to follow Trump’s program instead?
Exit question: What if Don Jr runs in 2024? If you think it’s a problem to have Trumps meddling in the future of the GOP after you-know-who has left office, imagine the extent of the problem if there are still Trumps on the primary ballot.