Since Trump’s takeover, political observers have envisioned two futures for the party of Lincoln. In one view, the GOP will become permanently subsumed by populism. If Trump wins a second term and can maintain his vindictive cult of personality, successful challenges to his style of politics do seem improbable. The conversion of onetime Never Trump favorites like Graham and Representative Elise Stefanik into shameless sycophants bears this out, as does the demonizing of critics such as former Senator Jeff Flake, former Representative Mark Sanford, and Representative Justin Amash, who left the party and now identifies as an independent. If Trump can withstand the bungling of the COVID-19 response and an economic downturn, that does not bode well for Never Trumpers hoping to free the party from his brand of populism.
Others cling to the view that if the president is repudiated at the ballot box this fall, the Trumpist fever will break and the party will be restored to something like its former self. This outcome seems unlikely. Deep sociological factors—in particular, a GOP base that is overwhelmingly white and is becoming more working-class, less formally educated, and older—will lead the party to go where its voters are, even in the absence of Trump.
But there may yet be a more hopeful story to tell about the Republican Party and the civic future of America. This story begins with the observation that, historically, American parties have rarely been homogeneous. While our institutions push strongly in the direction of two parties, our vast geography and demographic heterogeneity make it hard for those parties to be internally coherent. The ideological and coalitional diversity that in other countries is processed through multiple parties has typically been institutionalized in the United States as durable factions within the two dominant parties. As recently as the 1970s, the Democrats had a powerful faction of conservative southerners, and the GOP had a liberal wing based in the Northeast.