clock menu more-arrow no yes

“The party can’t move on”: Ross Douthat on the Republican Party after Trump

A conversation about the chaotic future of the GOP.

White House Holds COVID-19 Vaccine Summit
US President Donald Trump walks out after speaking at the Operation Warp Speed Vaccine Summit on December 08, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The Trump administration is careening towards its inglorious end, but Trump, the political force, likely isn’t going away.

It’s possible — maybe even probable — that Trump runs for the Republican nomination again in 2024. It’s just as possible that Trump’s children grab the baton and run for office themselves (at least two of them have already hinted at this). Or maybe Trump launches his own media empire and terrorizes the Republican establishment from the outside.

In all of these scenarios, the specter of Trump hangs over the GOP for years to come. And that, more than anything, is why American democracy’s long-term prospects seem so gloomy to many.

Regardless of what Trump does post-presidency, his impact on the conservative base has been profound. According to one poll, 70 percent of Republicans don’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair. That’s not all that surprising considering the leader of the party is telling his followers that the process was rigged and illegitimate. So whatever direction the GOP goes, they’re going with a Trumpian base and that might be the defining constraint for the party over the next four years.

To talk through what comes next, I reached out to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Douthat is consistently one of the more thoughtful observers of contemporary conservatism and just an insightful voice on the broader ideological landscape. We discuss why a conspiratorial mindset prevails on the right, if Republicans have an insoluble demand-side problem with their base, and if the GOP has a coherent ideological future with or without Trump.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Why do you think so many “normal conservatives,” to use your phrase, continue to believe that the election was rigged? We’re talking about 70 percent of the Republican Party, not just a minority of Birthers or QAnon fantasists.

Ross Douthat

I wrote a piece that tried to lay out some of the reasons Republicans might believe this that aren’t just “because right-wing news is whipping up the narrative.” Part of it has to do with how conservatives have experienced the pandemic era. Many see it as a justification for liberal overreach. It’s almost become the conservative equivalent of liberal fears about Trump’s authoritarianism. I don’t think that reading of the situation is correct to be clear, but I think you can see where it comes from. What has happened under pandemic conditions has been genuinely weird in all kinds of ways.

Beyond that, there’s always been this phenomenon on the right where you have self-conscious outsiders who think of themselves as completely outside of the official consensus about reality and bringing fresh eyes to every scenario and rejecting conventional wisdom at every pass. These are the people generating a lot of the data analyses claiming to show fraud or whatever. There’s a whole class of people dedicated to throwing off the “consensus” of academia or media discourse and that can send people in bizarre directions.

But look, I think a lot of this is overdetermined. We’ve never had a losing presidential candidate spend so much time claiming that the election was stolen from him. And the election was close, or close enough, to really raise the stakes of all these claims. And the fact that we ran an election under incredibly unusual conditions with a massive experiment in mail-in balloting that we’ve never done before. And while all that’s going on, you’ve got all these right-wing competitors to Fox News invested in the fraud narratives and working to make it look more plausible than it is.

American elections are big, messy, sprawling, localized events and to me, that’s part of the reason why you should assume there isn’t massive fraud. Because they are so sprawling and decentralized and complicated, the idea any kind of centralized conspiracy could figure out the right way to switch votes under these rules and this voting machine and this area and those rules and that voting machine, that just seems implausible to me.

Sean Illing

I’ll just say briefly that there’s a difference between a healthy skepticism and a persistent commitment to baseless conspiracy theories, and I think what we’re talking about here is overwhelmingly the latter.

Ross Douthat

Right, but I think skepticism is the place people fall back to when you have arguments with them. It’s that idea that when people argue they move back and forth between strong claims that are weakly defended and weaker claims that are strongly defended. I don’t think it’s the case that all those 70 percent [of Republicans who believe that fraud occurred] are 100 percent committed to the idea that there was fraud. It’s more that there are a lot of them who will tell pollsters that they think there was fraud and then if their friend challenges them, they will say, “Well, I’m just asking questions,” or, “I’m just being skeptical and I just want the media to cover these stories.”

There’s also a performative aspect to this. One of the responses I got to my column from people who are vocal in saying they think there was fraud was that you also have to see this as payback for the Democrats’ narrative about Trump being an illegitimate president. So some of this rests on sincere beliefs. Some of it rests on generalized skepticism. And for some people, it rests on an automatic distrust of liberal narratives and feeling that they have to fight to delegitimize Biden the way the Democrats delegitimized Trump. All of those things are going on at the same time.

Sean Illing

Yeah, there’s a lot going on. But there’s also fundamentally a demand-side problem on the right that’s helping to create this permanent conspiratorial mindset. Is this something that’s been engineered by conservative media or is it more complicated than that?

Ross Douthat

I think it’s fair to say that a big chunk of conservative media have leaned hard into a long-running message of total distrust of anything that comes out of establishment organs and the mainstream liberal media. So in that sense, it’s something that has clearly been nurtured and furthered by the narratives in right-wing media.

But your point about the demand side, you can see it with people abandoning Fox News for these startups or long-running nonentities that nobody was watching, and I think you can see it more generally in the original turn to Trump. Trump was not the candidate of Fox News or conservative media when he started running in 2016, but there were a lot of people on the right who wanted to hear what he was selling. He found a niche that wasn’t representative of all of conservatism but it was way more powerful than people thought.

Some of this goes back to your first question about what broke the Republican Party. To me, this demand-side problem has always been a part of conservatism, going all the way back to the John Birch Society and this fear of the liberal establishment and desire for narratives that make the liberal establishment seem more dangerous, more menacing, and more Communist than reality suggests. It’s always been there.

In that sense, you won’t get a Republican Party whose voters trust again until you have a leader of that party who inspires trust. But it’s a circular problem, because you can’t get that leader as long as the base of the party is drawn to conspiracy theories and figures like Trump.

Sean Illing

I guess that brings us back to Trump and the future of this party. I think Trump’s political genius was his ability to be for everything and nothing at the same time. “Make America Great Again” is so perfect precisely because it’s so empty. Trump positions himself as an avatar so that people can project onto him whatever they want. But his policy imprint is weak and I guess the question is what does the GOP stand for now that the avatar is gone? Does it have a coherent ideological future?

Ross Douthat

Well, the GOP stands for the idea that liberals are wrong. Whatever liberals want is wrong — that’s what the GOP stands for.

Sean Illing

That’s an instinct, not an ideology, Ross.

Ross Douthat

Yeah, but it’s a unifying force, right? Lots of people think liberals are wrong and being a party that says “liberals are wrong” can bring a lot of people together, certainly enough to maintain the GOP as a viable political force, even if it’s short of a majority. The interesting thing is that Trump’s persistent presence in the GOP actually freezes the real debate about how to build on his populist gestures or instincts, because he’s such a dominant force. The party can’t move on.

I do think Trump’s policy imprint has been substantial at least in the sense that he shifted the Republican Party away from Paul Ryan’s vision of entitlement reform in a way that’s going to be hard to undo. You will obviously have born-again deficit hawks attacking some of Joe Biden’s policy proposals, but I don’t think you’re going to see a re-emergence of full Ryanism in the next four years. Trump’s populism, even if it never manifested into anything substantial, changed the party.

Sean Illing

I’m not so sure about that. Trump did show that there’s space for a genuine economic populism on the right, but in the end he mostly outsourced his economic policies to the business wing of the GOP.

Ross Douthat

Not totally. You could say that Trump sort returned to what Bush did in his first term, which is to say tax cuts for the business wing and more spending for voters who like spending. So it wasn’t a radical turn to populism, it was more of a return to Reagan-era deficits-don’t-matter thinking. But there was a clear and I think irreversible turn away from the Romney-Ryan proposal to reform Social Security and basically end entitlement-friendly conservatism. I think Trump killed that completely.

Sean Illing

If a Republican comes along who really is an economic populist, and who doesn’t couch it in nativist appeals, could he or she win? Does the populism only work if it’s tied to the nativism?

Ross Douthat

I don’t think the populism has to be tied to the nativism. I think the big question is, does it work if it isn’t tied to a celebrity businessman figure who plays the outsider role?

I don’t think racism was Trump’s secret sauce as much as celebrity was. I think the race stuff helped him build his base in the early going, but later it became a liability. But if you want to understand how Trump won over a certain kind of white working-class voter who used to vote Democrat, or a certain kind of middle-class Hispanic or African-American voter, I think the fusion of populism and Apprentice-style celebrity was very powerful. That’s the thing that any would-be inheritor of Trump will be missing.

Sean Illing

Whatever happens, it’s hard to see a path forward for the Republican Party that doesn’t recognize anti-elite grievances as a core animating principle. Can you be a “grievance” party without also being a reactionary party?

Ross Douthat

The Republican Party is destined to be a reactionary party, but that’s not necessarily a negative thing. If you think America has taken a wrong turn and needs some serious changes, that’s certainly reactionary, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Reactionaries can sometimes be right.

The grievance question is hard, though. There are conservatives like Julius Krein, who edits the American Affairs journal, that are trying to make something substantive out of Trumpism. Krein, for example, arggues that populists need technocrats, too. You can’t just run a government on anti-elite grievances. You need people who know how the government works and can take the somewhat inchoate grievances of the populists and turn them into a policy agenda that actually answers those grievances. I think that’s absolutely right, but it’s really, really hard to pull off because a politics of grievance alienates the people you need to join it in order to turn it in this constructive direction.

The problem for Republicans is they represent the grievances of 48 percent of the country. If you represent the grievances of 60 percent of the country, then it’s easier to govern. But the grievances of a not-quite-majority is a very different thing. It’s a lot harder to build anything with 48 percent support. That’s not exactly a Reagan-level coalition.

Sean Illing

What do you expect Trump’s relationship to the party to look like the next four years?

Ross Douthat

He’s going to act as if he’s running again for a long period of time. I don’t think it’s guaranteed that he runs again. I think it is very likely that a member of his family runs. Like if you ask me for odds that either he or Don Jr. will run, I would say we’re at 75 or 80 percent. I think the fact that he’s going to act as if he’s running means that he’s going to consider himself the leader of the party and the people involved in the party establishment are going to act loyal to him.

Absent an alternative center of gravity for the out-of-power party, I think Trump could have a lot of success just casting himself as the leader of the opposition and having parts of the RNC and other institutions like that in his corner, whether they want to be or not. Then the question is whether he can run a Tea Party-style insurgency campaign against people who he feels were insufficiently loyal to him. But 2022 is a long way away and it’s possible that his star will fade once he’s out of power.

But if you look at the dynamic right now, the fact that so many Republicans want to believe that he didn’t really lose the election puts him in a much stronger position to claim to be the leader of the party moving forward.

Sean Illing

Whoever takes the helm for the GOP will have to reflect Trumpism one way or the other. Who is best positioned to fill that vacuum?

Ross Douthat

The honest answer is I don’t know. It’s not that hard to imagine that if Trump dropped back, or if the Trump kids are embroiled in legal or financial troubles and there’s no Trump on the ballot, someone like Pence or Nikki Haley appropriating just enough populism to ride their name recognition and connection with Trump to some kind of victory. I just don’t see any way they go back to Romney-Ryan Republicanism.

But a world where it’s the same old establishment, only they’re just saying a bunch more Trumpy things, I don’t think that world is impossible to imagine. I think it’s a little more likely than my preferred scenario where a Marco Rubio or a Josh Hawley succeed in creating something genuinely new out of what Trump failed to build. But in a world where Trump is still here, I have no idea how there could ever be a Trump-like alternative in the GOP. I just can’t see it.