Win or Lose, It’s Donald Trump’s Republican Party

Listen to This Article

Audio Recording by Audm

To hear more audio stories from publishers like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.

The tourism bureau of Manatee County, population just over 400,000, advertises the expected trappings of any placid gulfside community in southwest Florida — a historic fishing village, an award-winning local library system, outlet malls. Eighty-six percent white and a noted second-home locale for retirees fleeing the Northeast in winter, Manatee has voted for every Republican presidential nominee since 1948 — the sort of homogeneity that typically produces staid politics. In the summer of 2020, as the county’s residents turned their attention to the race for District 7’s seat on the board of county commissioners, some of the hot-button issues were a new storm-water fee and the wisdom of using public funds to extend 44th Avenue East.

One Republican vying for the office was George Kruse, a 45-year-old finance veteran and novice candidate who owns a commercial real estate debt fund. Kruse, who has an M.B.A. from Columbia and started his career at an affordable-housing equity fund, says he got into the race partly to address the area’s lack of affordable housing; in interviews with local media, he talked about restructuring the county budget and establishing long-term plans for sustainable growth. But from the outset his campaign included a concession to political reality. The top item on his “Conservative Principles for a Better Manatee” brochure was “Support President Trump to Keep America Great.”

Kruse’s principal opponent for the Republican nomination was Ed Hunzeker, the county’s 72-year-old former administrator, who left the position in 2019 after clashing with the county commission over a controversial decision to authorize the construction of a new radio tower next to a local elementary school. In announcing his campaign, Hunzeker called himself a “strong supporter of President Trump,” and he began flooding Facebook with ad after ad to promote his affinity further (“LIKE if you support President Trump!”). Kruse did not feel his own bona fides were in question; one of the first photos posted to his campaign page showed him smiling with his arm around a cardboard cutout of Trump. Nevertheless, on June 30, he debuted his campaign’s new slogan: “Make Manatee Red Again.” “Real Conservatives in Manatee County are done with the RINO Purple/Blue wave taking over our supposedly conservative County Commission,” he declared.

Three days later, Hunzeker put out an ad juxtaposing photos of himself and Trump and promising: “Ed Hunzeker Stands With Our President.” He followed up with a six-second YouTube video featuring a gentle guitar strum, Hunzeker sporting a button-down shirt and hopeful gaze and a single line of text: “Keep Manatee Great.” Two days later, a slightly perspiring Kruse filmed a Facebook Live to clarify his own allegiance. “People who know me know that I support President Trump,” he said. “They see me get out of a truck with a Trump sticker on the back. They see me walking through Publix with a Trump hat on. They see me wearing a variety of different Trump shirts. I don’t need to tell people I support the president. People just see that I support the president.” He continued: “So, you know, consider that over the weekend.”

In the month that followed, it was as if Donald Trump’s Twitter feed achieved three dimensions in Manatee County. Kruse set his profile picture on Facebook to an image — a meme that previously surfaced on Donald Trump Jr.’s Instagram — of Trump’s face superimposed on George Washington’s body, with a machine gun in one arm and a bald eagle perched on the other, with a photo of Kruse himself added just outside the frame. He posted updates tracking “Lyin’ Ed’s” Facebook ad spending. Hunzeker called attention to Kruse’s small donations to Barack Obama in 2008; “George Kruse: Proud Financier of Barack Obama,” one of the ensuing ads announced.

Shortly after, many in Manatee County received a text claiming Black Lives Matter had endorsed Hunzeker, who, it said, wanted to defund the police; Kruse’s campaign denied having anything to do with it. When a local group calling itself the “Trump Committee” revealed “BY POPULAR REQUEST” its endorsement of Hunzeker, Kruse’s supporters were quick to point out that these Trump supporters were not affiliated with the official Trump campaign organization. Kruse warned voters to stay vigilant against the sway of current county commissioners like Carol Whitmore, who had been vocal in her support for Hunzeker. “The inner circle, deep state of Manatee County is scrambling to close ranks,” he wrote in a Facebook post shortly before the primary in August.

Kruse’s Facebook page was such a relentless barrage of wild-eyed warnings that when I reached Kruse by phone recently, I was surprised to find that he was a pretty standard-issue Republican, prone to reciting standard-issue Republican platitudes: The private sector knows best; the free market is fundamental to prosperity. His display of Trump superfandom was a rational political decision precisely because his politics were not obviously Trumplike. “I can sit here all day and say, ‘Here’s my five-step plan on work force housing,’ and a vast majority of voters aren’t going to listen to a word I say,” he told me. “But if I say, ‘I support President Trump, and the other guy doesn’t support him as much as I do,’ — well, anybody who’s going into the polling place, that’s the sentence they need to hear.”

What Kruse believes that sentence communicates is not all that revolutionary in the context of Republican thought. It means that you “believe in free markets” (even if Trump himself believes in trade wars) and “a conservative approach to things” (even if Trump often seems enamored of big government). It means you’re anti-abortion and pro-gun rights. “That’s more of the Trump Republican kind of mentality,” he explained.

To the extent that self-described Bob Dole Republicans still exist, they’d probably say the same thing. But Kruse said Trump’s appeal wasn’t just a set of beliefs; it was a willingness to go to extremes to pursue and defend them. “I think that’s one of the biggest differences he’s brought into the Republican Party,” he said. “It was somebody who was just willing to do what was right, even if others thought it was wrong.”

Kruse and Hunzeker did not actually disagree much on what was right. In debates and interviews with local outlets, the difference between their respective pro-growth agendas came down to particulars like the value of impact fees on new development (which, Kruse now points out, they didn’t diverge on that much). But once a candidate embraced the maximalist us-or-them mode of Trump — “You have no choice but to vote for me,” Trump told rallygoers in New Hampshire in summer 2019, or else “everything’s going to be down the tubes” — no election could be less than existential.

In August, Kruse beat Hunzeker in the Republican primary by nearly 15 points. His only opponent in the general election is a write-in candidate. Five days before the primary, Kruse shared an image of what appeared to be a Revolutionary War soldier on Facebook. The text on the image read: “2020 IS NO LONGER REPUBLICAN VS. DEMOCRAT. IT’S FREEDOM VERSUS TYRANNY.”

“I feel the same way about our race against the inner circle, deep state of Manatee County!” Kruse wrote alongside the picture. “Don’t let Ed and Carol control your lives!”

The panic and excitement attending Donald Trump have always shared an assumption: that his election marked a profound break with the American politics that came before it. During his inaugural address, as he surveyed the national landscape of “American carnage,” Trump himself invoked the advent of “a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” In the years and events that followed — the endless soap opera of the White House, the forceful separation of children from their families at the border, the pandemic, Trump’s refusal to permit even a passing interest in a peaceful transfer of power — it seemed increasingly clear that the world never had.

But for all the attention paid to what Trump represents in American politics, the most salient feature of his ascent within the Republican Party might be what he doesn’t represent. When Ronald Reagan overthrew the old order of the Republican Party in the 1980 election, he did so as the figurehead of a conservative movement that had been gestating since the 1950s, with an intellectual framework that William F. Buckley Jr. had been articulating for a quarter-century, with a policy blueprint provided by the Heritage Foundation and with a campaign apparatus that quickly pivoted to the task of converting the new constituencies he’d brought into the party to a base durable enough to build on. The total merger of his movement with his party didn’t happen immediately, but the key elements of it were in place by the end of his first term, and there was not much ambiguity about what the G.O.P., if it was transforming, was transforming into.

Trump’s takeover, by contrast, has been as one-dimensional as it has been total. In the space of one term, the president has co-opted virtually every power center in the Republican Party, from its congressional caucuses to its state parties, its think tanks to its political action committees. But though he has disassembled much of the old order, he has built very little in its place. “You end up with this weird paradox where he stands to haunt the G.O.P. for many years to come, but on the substance it’s like he was never even there,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist.

During Trump’s presidency, his party has become host to new species of fringe figures. Laura Loomer, a self-identified #ProudIslamophobe and erstwhile Infowars contributor who has been banned from Twitter and Facebook, earned presidential praise — and a campaign-trail cameo from Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump — for winning her Florida congressional district’s Republican primary in August. There is also Marjorie Taylor Greene, the party’s current nominee in the race for Georgia’s 14th district, whose embrace of the QAnon conspiracy theory and litany of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic statements didn’t dissuade Trump from calling her a “future Republican star,” or Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republicans’ leader in the House, from pledging to give her committee assignments should she win in November.

But Trump’s influence is also reflected, in a more pedestrian but equally revealing way, in the ease with which George Kruse and others like him have transposed Trumplike signifiers onto otherwise utterly conventional suburban Republican platforms. Republican voters are essentially the same people who voted Republican before Trump; the party’s politicians are still mostly the same people, hiring mostly the same strategists. But their relationships to the party now flow through a single man, one who has never offered a clear vision for his political program beyond his immediate aggrandizement. Whether Trump wins or loses in November, no one else in the party’s official ranks seems to have one, either.

This is a far cry from the certainty with which those same officials regarded Trump nearly five years ago. In January 2016, Republican lawmakers gathered at a harborside Marriott in Baltimore for their annual conference retreat. Paul Ryan, then the speaker of the House, would preview his “Better Way” agenda, a collection of policy proposals addressing the economy, national security, the social safety net. In scheduled sessions, members would debate the finer points of the agenda that Ryan stressed would transform the G.O.P. from an “opposition party” to a “proposition party.” And in unscheduled interludes, they would consider how their party’s presidential primary could very well come down to a contest between a reality-television star, whom they hated, and Senator Ted Cruz, whom they also hated.

By the end of the retreat, many had privately agreed that the best way to achieve Ryan’s proposition-party ambitions in such a scenario was to nominate the candidate with the fewer proposals. As one Republican congressman explained to me at the time, when I was reporting on the conference for National Review Online, Cruz had his own “divisive” ideas (though in fact they were not so different from Ryan’s own). But with Trump, “there’s not a lot of meat there,” the congressman said. If Trump became the party’s candidate, he serenely predicted, he would “be looking to answer the question: ‘Where’s the beef?’ And we will have that for him.”

As it turned out, Trump wasn’t especially interested in running on Ryan’s “bold conservative policy agenda.” “Put a Stop to Executive Overreach” may have been a Better Way, but Trump believed the people — his people — would be more galvanized by a ban on all Muslim travel to the United States, which he first proposed the month before. (“Offensive and unconstitutional,” Mike Pence, then the governor of Indiana, tweeted of the ban at the time.) “It’s the party’s party,” Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, nevertheless repeatedly insisted through the summer of 2016. “The party defines the party.”

It was as though Priebus and others believed the G.O.P. to be some cosmic body animated by a logic undisclosed to humankind, rather than a collection of overgrown college politicos who worked in a building opposite a restaurant called Tortilla Coast and who had lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections — in other words, an institution ripe for hijacking. Paul Ryan announced his retirement 15 months into Trump’s presidency (“We are with you Paul!” Trump tweeted shortly thereafter). Kevin McCarthy, then the House majority leader, told reporters about how his wife gave him an autographed copy of “The Art of the Deal” in the late 1980s while they were dating. Priebus went to the White House with Trump as the new president’s chief of staff, only to learn via Twitter six months into the job that he had been replaced. (“We accomplished a lot together and I am proud of him!” Trump said.) The R.N.C. is now run by Ronna Romney McDaniel, Mitt Romney’s niece, who dropped the “Romney” from her name in apparent deference to Trump. As the newly inaugurated vice president, Mike Pence applauded Trump’s early executive order banning half the world’s Shiite Muslims from entering the country.

This June, as Trump prepared for his second convention as the Republican presidential nominee, the party’s leaders decided to dispense with the fuss of a new platform altogether and simply readopted the 2016 platform. Never mind that the document contained some three dozen condemnations of the “current president” and “current administration” and “current occupant” of the White House; and never mind that it expressed full support for Puerto Rico’s statehood, which Trump had called an “absolute no.” Officials did, however, manage to draft a new preface: “The Republican Party,” it proclaimed, “has and will continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.” In Priebus’s parlance, the party had defined the party.

That this is no longer Paul Ryan’s party is clear. What Trump has turned it into, though, is less so. Republican lawmakers and officials now reflexively tout their proximity to Trump — like the “100 percent Trump voting record” that Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia claims in a recent ad. They reference “Trumpism” casually and constantly and accede that it will in some way dictate the future of the party. But they can’t seem to agree on what it actually is. “The party right now is just Trump, right?” said one senior Senate G.O.P. aide. “So when you take him out of it, what do we have left?”

When I asked even retiring or former members of Congress what the G.O.P. could be said to stand for today, few were willing to venture an answer on the record. Paul Ryan was “not doing interviews these days,” a former spokesman said. Lamar Alexander, the retiring Republican senator from Tennessee, was “more than glad to be in touch for future opportunities,” his spokesman told me. When I put the question to John Boehner, the former Republican speaker of the House, after a round of small talk, he said, “Hmm, no. I think I’ll pass on that one.”

“It’s national populism and identity-politics Republicanism,” Representative Justin Amash told me, and “it’s here to stay for a while.” It was early October, and Amash, who has represented Michigan in Congress since 2011, was sitting — maskless, but across the room — in his Capitol Hill office. Amash was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative Republican hard-liners, most of whom identified with the Tea Party movement, who came together out of frustration with the party’s congressional leadership boxing out the rank-and-file during the legislative process. The caucus became a right-wing media darling after one of its members, a backbencher from North Carolina named Mark Meadows, filed a motion to oust Boehner from the speakership in the summer of 2015. The vote on that motion never happened; Boehner announced his retirement that fall. But by then, the group had built out its ranks enough to thwart any piece of legislation in the Republican-led House.

“The main purpose of the Freedom Caucus was to open up the process and ensure all voices could be heard,” Amash told me. But its members were best known as trenchant conservative ideologues, preaching austerity and refusing to cede ground on social issues. During the 2016 presidential primary, its members were broadly, if obliquely, critical of Trump: “We need someone who will restore greatness to America, not as a talking point or a punchline, but someone who wants to restore constitutional values,” Representative Andy Harris of Maryland said after he endorsed Ben Carson. Others blamed the G.O.P. establishment for not doing more to stop Trump’s rise.

While the establishment transitioned with relative ease to the onset of Trump’s presidency, the Freedom Caucus, for a time, seemed to represent a potential thorn in its side. Many of the new administration’s policy ambitions — trade protectionism, a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill — were direct affronts to the stated values of the Tea Party crowd. “The conservatives are going to go crazy,” Stephen K. Bannon, chief executive of Trump’s campaign and an incoming White House adviser, crowed in a postelection interview.

It was common in the Freedom Caucus’s weekly meetings for members to mock Trump; “I can’t believe he’s only been bankrupt that many times,” one of its members quipped, according to Amash. In March 2017, the group’s unwillingness to fall behind Ryan’s first stab at an Obamacare replacement — which they rejected both for its substance and the closed-door process by which it was written — prompted Trump to excoriate its members on Twitter. “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast,” the president raged. “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”

Mo Brooks, a Freedom Caucus member from Alabama, was among Trump’s harshest critics during the primary, castigating Trump as a “notorious flip-flopper” with “huge character flaws” whose presidency would ultimately make his base regret voting for him. Brooks had cast his own ballot for Trump grudgingly: “You have to decide who is the lesser of the two evils,” he told a group of Duke University students at the time, “and then vote accordingly.”

There was still plenty to be unhappy about in Trump’s first year, like the health care debacle and Trump’s publicly excoriating — “waterboarding,” in Brooks’s words — Brooks’s fellow Alabamian Jeff Sessions, then Trump’s attorney general, for his recusal from the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. But Brooks found there was a lot more to like. “On border security, the president has been spot on,” he told me. He went on: “The president showed he would take the public-policy stances that, by and large, are supported by conservatives, and those who believe in the foundational principles that have combined to make America the greatest nation in world history.”

Brooks’s transformation is instructive insofar as he doesn’t see it as a transformation at all. The true conservatives hadn’t changed, Brooks insisted; Trump just surprised everyone by governing a lot like one. By 2018, Bannon was out, and by November the party’s leaders had major tax cuts and a slew of new conservative judges to show for their acquiescence. On the “moral value side of the coin,” Brooks said, “President Trump has been strongly pro-life.” On the economy, Trump “has fought hard for free enterprise, which is premised on freedom and liberty, and against socialism.” And after years of railing against the constitutional abomination of Barack Obama’s governing by pen, the Freedom Caucus members found that executive orders weren’t so bad when you liked what was in them, such as regulatory relief for companies in defiance of Obamacare’s contraception mandate. “I am fine with executive orders that do the right thing,” Brooks told me.

“I wish we had done better with deficit and debt,” Brooks allowed. But when pressed on this and other ways Trump had fallen short on either his own promises or longstanding conservative priorities in general, he invoked the same villains he might have in the Freedom Caucus’s heyday: special-interest groups and irresponsible party leaders. He’d been in meetings, he said, where he heard the president “expressing dissatisfaction with these huge deficits,” which, under Trump, have achieved record proportions. (And in any event, the former Freedom Caucus chairman Jim Jordan insisted to me recently, Trump is “going to focus on that in his second term.”) As for health care, Trump backed “Paul Ryan’s proposal to expand socialized medicine” only because he received “bad advice” from the “liberal wing” of the party (by which he meant Ryan and McCarthy). “Fortunately, Donald Trump, after listening to our conservative arguments, was persuaded that we were right, and our liberal wing was wrong,” he said. “That’s the mark of leadership. As you get information, you should change as that information requires. And President Trump did.”

Trump’s resolve to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in October 2018, Amash says, dulled the remaining criticisms of the president in the Freedom Caucus — and the midterm elections a month later all but extinguished them. The Democrats’ rout of the Republicans in the 2018 House races was unequivocally tied to Trump’s unpopularity — according to exit polls, 90 percent of voters who disapproved of him voted for the other party in their local House race. But that fate fell upon pro- and anti-Trump Republicans alike.

At the same time, Republican primary voters’ devotion to Trump was such that even in the Senate, candidates who had criticized or otherwise distanced themselves from the president, like Dean Heller of Nevada, struggled to make it to the general election, backpedaling their criticisms and holding their breath until Trump’s blessing finally came via Twitter. Raúl Labrador, a founder of the Freedom Caucus, had all but nabbed Trump’s endorsement in the Republican primary for governor of Idaho when supporters of his main opponent, Brad Little, packaged together clips of Labrador bashing Trump in 2016 and delivered them to the West Wing. Today Labrador is back in the private sector. Little is now governor of Idaho.

All told, 26 congressional Republicans — some moderates, others facing stiff odds in the general election — decided to retire from politics in 2018, the party’s second-highest number in more than 40 years. “Republicans tried to steer clear of Donald Trump a little bit in that election,” Amash said. “They tried to avoid him as a topic. And they weren’t successful. And Donald Trump came back after that and said, ‘I told you so.’”

Some caucus members, meanwhile, seemed entranced by the proximity to power that loyalty afforded them. Mark Meadows, who became the Freedom Caucus chairman in January 2017, liked making a show of his ever-more-frequent phone calls with the president and liked ensconcing himself on weeknights in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel, the favored Washington haunt of Trump’s coterie of advisers and hangers-on. And as Trump proved ever more willing to attack his colleagues in the Freedom Caucus, Meadows seemed ever more willing to let him.

In 2018, Representative Mark Sanford, a Freedom Caucus member from South Carolina and a vocal Trump critic, lost a primary in which Trump endorsed his opponent. Later, Trump visited a House Republican conference meeting and proceeded to ridicule Sanford. Meadows did not come to his colleague’s defense. “It was a betrayal and an abandonment of someone who is part of our family,” Amash said. It was the only moment during our interview that he betrayed a sense of anger over the past four years. (Meadows declined to comment for this article.)

It was shortly after that that Amash gave his final speech to the group he helped start. “At some point, I didn’t feel like the Freedom Caucus was really producing what we had founded it for — precisely to push back on things like Donald Trump taking full control of government, you know, using the executive branch as a legislative branch, or Congress not doing its job as an oversight body,” he said. The caucus’s about face, he argues, is a useful way to grasp the extent of Trump’s takeover of the party. Such a takeover was not inevitable, he insists; the Freedom Caucus’s early willingness to stand up to Trump seemed to offer the hope of maintaining healthy debate and disagreement among Republicans under his presidency. “I was not even the fiercest critic, compared to some of the others,” he recalled of those early days.

In 2019, Amash left the G.O.P. to become an Independent. Earlier this year, he switched his party affiliation again to become the first Libertarian member of Congress, and after briefly considering and rejecting a third-party presidential candidacy this spring, he decided not to run for re-election. “Everything is about personalities now,” he told me. Trump didn’t start that trend, he pointed out, but he certainly accelerated it. “You can see changes in some of the senators, too — the way they are now trolling people on Twitter. This sort of disparaging of the left is different; it’s materially different from what we saw before Donald Trump.”

Congressional Republicans who have left the fold in the Trump years invariably attest to the private discomfort of their friends and former colleagues on Capitol Hill who remain in good standing with the president. “A healthy percentage of them want Trump to lose,” Jeff Flake, the former senator and congressman from Arizona and one of the 2018 cycle’s many Republican retirees, told me. “There are no illusions about where the party is going under Trumpism. This is a dead end. This is a demographic cul-de-sac. My colleagues know it. And they had higher aspirations, nearly all of them, than to approve the president’s executive calendar.”

The fact that these private expressions of despair have stayed private cannot be pinned on rabid primary voters alone. Ultimately, a great many in the party have quite enjoyed their time on the Trump train — as Mark Meadows, who is now Trump’s chief of staff, could attest. Yet for all the attention paid to loyalty as an ordering principle in today’s Republican Party, it’s not entirely clear what dividends it will pay in Trump’s absence.

Consider Mike Pence. The vice president has dutifully, even enthusiastically, taken on Trump’s critics and made the president’s many enemies his own, be they kneeling N.F.L. players or his own friends. In the spring of 2019, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter, the International Republican Institute, a nongovernmental organization that for more than two decades was chaired by Senator John McCain, tried to honor the vice president with its annual Freedom Award. But when the news made its way to Trump, along with word of the organization’s ties to McCain, he told Pence to turn it down, according to one of the sources. Pence did, and the award was given to Mitch McConnell instead.

“It’s been painful to see,” Flake, a friend of Pence’s since they served together as archconservatives in the House years ago, told me. “I had hoped that he would have influence on certain issues and could sway some things, because I trust where he is more than the president. But I haven’t seen that influence.” When I asked Flake if he and Pence had ever discussed what had become of their friendship, he said they hadn’t. “Mike is unfailingly loyal to the president.”

That Pence harbors ambitions for the presidency in 2024 is no great secret, and for a time, his devotion to Trump was his strongest claim to his mantle. “He stood by Trump in 2016, after the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, when no one stood by Trump,” recalled one former Trump campaign official. Did Pence privately accept Reince Priebus’s offer to lead the ticket should Trump drop out? Well, sure, this campaign official acknowledged. (Pence denies this.) “But he did go out on national TV and defend Trump. Mrs. Pence didn’t want him to do that, but he still did it.”

But as fealty to Trump has become central to the Republican Party, Pence’s steadfastness no longer seems as exceptional as it did in late 2016. “Pence’s whole brand has been that he’s stayed loyal to the president, that he’s the O.G.,” one R.N.C. official told me. “Which is great, but what is there beyond that? He’s a late-’90s version of what a Republican primary voter wants. If you’re running a campaign, it has to be about the future.”

Of the 30 or so Republican officials I interviewed for this article, from the White House and the Trump campaign to Congress and the R.N.C., probably half of them laughed when I asked if they considered Pence the party’s heir apparent. “Pence is a very good — he’s a very good man,” the former Trump campaign official told me, as if offering a consolation prize. “A very good person.”

Pence’s plight illustrates a paradox peculiar to the Trump administration. The high-level Trump officials who seem most poised to seek higher office — the sort who, in a normal presidency, might be expected to perpetuate and advance the president’s legacy — are largely people who, like Pence, were brought in expressly because of how un-Trumplike they were, and as such seem obviously ill suited to carrying his torch. This bind was apparent in the speech that Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent vessel for the G.O.P.’s future hopes, gave at this year’s Republican National Convention. In 2015, in the aftermath of the mass murder of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., Haley, who at the time was governor of the state, unabashedly called for and oversaw the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. In her R.N.C. speech, she appeared to tiptoe around the episode by nebulously recasting it as the removal of a “divisive symbol” done “peacefully and respectfully.”

The idea that conventional Republicans like Pence and Haley can repackage themselves through Trump loyalty fails to reckon with the desire of many Trump voters to genuinely overturn the party’s status quo. Oren Cass, the domestic policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, argues that in 2016, Trump in some ways ran the most substantively policy-focused campaign of the Republican field, on trade policy, on immigration and “ultimately on how the market economy is serving people.” “Was he powerfully articulating that? No. But there was an opening for someone to do just that.”

Earlier this year, Cass founded a think tank called American Compass to offer a policy vision — reforming organized labor and “reshoring” supply chains, remedying failures in financial markets — to address the dissatisfaction with conservative economic orthodoxy that he believes Trump’s 2016 campaign indicated. In August, he hosted American Compass’s first live conversation, a remote interview with the junior senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley, billed as a discussion about the “empty platitudes and hypocrisy of ‘woke capital.’” The youngest current member of the Senate, Hawley, at age 40, has become a favorite among those in the conservative think-tank class who believe the lessons of Trump’s resonance are primarily ideological. “The old political platforms have grown stale,” Hawley told the audience at the inaugural National Conservatism Conference — an effort by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a new think tank, to map the contours of what might be called a post-Trump nationalism — in July 2019. He rebuked the American right for its celebration of “hyper-globalization,” its dogmatic affection for the free market.

The difficulty with engineering a new paradigm that builds on Trump’s 2016 win is that the president himself is not especially committed to it, and the numbers of those in his administration who are have dwindled. Trump’s presidency has not itself departed much from the substance of the old platforms — and not only because his party has not bothered to formally update them. For all of Bannon’s bold postelection talk, Trump’s White House ultimately came to resemble something much more traditionally Republican, pursuing a mostly conventional conservative agenda beneath its roiling surface noise of organizational chaos, casual racism and weird tweets about the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.”

“I think it is obviously the case that certain facets of the administration’s policymaking became kind of very traditionally supply-side,” Cass told me. He said he has had “very constructive conversations” with staff members at the agency level who are receptive to both the conceptual arguments and policy ideas of American Compass. “But actually moving policy forward in an administration depends on the focus of the principal. And obviously there’s — I don’t think there’s sufficient focus from the top on actually developing and advancing a coherent agenda.” He acknowledged that Trump has in this way hurt the project he is credited with helping give life to. “It has put efforts to build a coherent and constructive foundation in the context of an administration that people are looking to to do that, but isn’t.”

It’s unclear, however, whether the “people” Cass was referring to include Republican voters — among whom Trump has consistently enjoyed an approval rating north of 75 percent in spite of any number of disappointing Infrastructure Weeks. Which may explain why, apart from a handful of senators like Hawley, Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, ambitious Republican politicians aren’t scrambling to associate themselves with American Compass the way they might have with the Heritage Foundation in the Reagan years or the American Enterprise Institute during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Instead, they are much more likely to try to ingratiate themselves with Charlie Kirk, the 27-year-old founder of the right-wing student organization Turning Point USA. Kirk shot to prominence on the right in 2012, when, as a high school senior in Illinois, he wrote an article for Breitbart News arguing that high school teachers were indoctrinating students through liberal textbooks. He started Turning Point shortly after, and in the eight years since, he has transformed the group into a well-funded media operation, backed by conservative megadonors like the Wyoming businessman Foster Friess.

Turning Point’s political arm has worked diligently for Trump’s re-election; according to The Washington Post, its efforts have included hiring teenagers to amplify disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and claims of voter fraud. Kirk himself has become close with the Trump family and earned retweet sprees from the president for his musings on the “Wuhan Health Organization.” A conference hosted by Turning Point at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in December attracted Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, Jerry Falwell Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle, the conservative talk-radio celebrity Mark Levin and the former “Bachelorette” contestant Josh Murray.

The conference, which at one point featured a dance routine by models representing an energy-drink company, was not Paul Ryan’s world of PowerPoints in Marriott ballrooms or Cass’s blizzard of white papers. Kirk’s rapid ascent has occurred more or less entirely outside the traditional professional apparatus in which conservative activists and intellectuals like Cass built their careers even a decade ago. It suggests how rapidly influence has shifted within the G.O.P. Politicians who want futures in the party now try to cultivate Kirk’s enormous audience, appearing on his podcast or speaking at Turning Point events. Privately, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is known to be exploring his own 2024 presidential bid, has tried to build a relationship with the right-wing activist as well; earlier this year, according to two people familiar with the matter, Pompeo invited Kirk to a get-to-know-you meeting. “I mean, four years ago I wasn’t even verified on Twitter,” Kirk told me. Today “there’s moments where you kind of realize, ‘Oh, wow, when I tweet something, it moves opinion.’ And that’s a cool thing.”

Kirk echoed Cass and others in his definition of what he calls the “MAGA doctrine” — challenging the Republican orthodoxy on trade, “open borders” and the corporate class. (“I love the idea space,” he told me.) But he argued that the one thing that truly unified the Republican base in its support of Trump was a belief that he was a “fighter.” “There’s an agreement in the conservative base nationwide that the last couple of decades has been this managed decline of center-right surrender, right? That we win elections, but we lose our country, and we seem OK with it.”

Trump, on the other hand, was willing to shut down the government for 35 days for a border wall — even if he caved in the end. “That really was a different type of Republican,” Kirk said. “We don’t forget that kind of thing in conservative circles.”

In September 2016, The Claremont Review of Books published an essay called “The Flight 93 Election,” by a pseudonymous author later revealed to be Michael Anton, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush’s National Security Council and Rudy Giuliani. The essay’s title was a reference to the passenger plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, after the passengers and crew tried to overcome the Al Qaeda terrorists who hijacked the aircraft. “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die,” Anton wrote. “You may die anyway. You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: If you don’t try, death is certain.”

Anton would later serve on the staff of Trump’s National Security Council, and four years later, his essay still reads as perhaps the most accurate summary of Trumpism. Anton’s only really specific ideological appeal in “The Flight 93 Election,” with its warnings about “the ceaseless importation of third-world foreigners with no tradition of, taste for or experience in liberty,” was ethnocentrism. Otherwise, the essay in some ways anticipated the ecumenical aspect of Trump’s Republican Party, its willingness to take all comers as long as they believe that Democratic governance is tantamount to playing “Russian roulette with a semi-auto,” as Anton described the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. This premium on combativeness, on “fighting back” above all else, has, on one end of the spectrum, knocked down most of the barriers that at one time would have kept brazen conspiracy theorists at bay. And on the other end, it has made essentially normal Republican politicians present themselves as extremists, even in the least extreme of situations.

“I will tell you this: Donald Trump showed me something about running a serious campaign,” Mark Joe Matney told me. Matney, a 54-year-old former high school special-education teacher active in the local Republican Party in Washington County, Va., ran for county commissioner of revenue in 2019. He had noticed that in the slate of local positions up for re-election, two Democratic incumbents — the treasurer and revenue commissioner — were running unopposed. He decided the second position was a better fit for him; he has an M.B.A. from Averett University and a doctorate in organizational leadership from Nova Southeastern University.

As he prepared his bid, Matney recalled, he considered what the president’s example had taught him about politics. “You know, you can’t be nice and cordial to your opponent — you have to make him enemy No. 1. In other words, in a serious, competitive race, you can’t be nice to your opponent and win.” He later clarified: “I’m not saying I took it that far. But Trump takes it that far, and shows us you have to be tough to win an election.”

For Matney, being tough in the race to be the next chief of property assessment meant telegraphing to voters that the soul of the county was at stake. “In the local elections here, before Trump came along, they never said, ‘This is the Democrat, this is the Republican.’ They said, ‘This is John Doe running against Jim Doe.’ And I wanted to make sure that people understood that, no, local elections are not just about — ” He trailed off. “The party puts you on the ticket. And I wanted to distinguish that he was a Democrat, and I was a Republican.”

And not just a Republican. The yard signs that Matney began standing up throughout his southern Virginia county read: “Dr. Mark Matney: Trump Republican for Commissioner of Revenue.” The “Trump Republican” tag, he believed, told voters most of what they needed to know. That it may have told voters little about his ability to assess the county’s motor-vehicle tax was beside the point. “It was about the fact that my opponent gives money to a party that supports abortion,” he said. There was no need, he said, for the issues-laden brochures that local candidates dispensed in the past; rather, a business card that on one side reiterated his support for Trump and on the other said, “Go vote, or Democrats win,” would do the trick.

Like George Kruse in Florida, Matney doesn’t view Trumpism as any great ideological departure from the G.O.P. of, say, the George W. Bush era. But he stressed that were he running for this position 15 years ago, he wouldn’t have advertised himself as a “Bush Republican.” For Matney, a Bush Republican is a guy like Ed Gillespie, who lost the race for governor of Virginia in 2017 because he was “too nice” to Ralph Northam.

This was a curious point of reference: Gillespie was indeed the model of a Bush Republican, an R.N.C. chairman during Bush’s first term and a counselor to the president during his second. But during the gubernatorial race, he had tried to pocket his establishment résumé and stake his campaign on Trumplike positions: arguing to keep the state’s Confederate monuments in place, fulminating against “sanctuary cities” and accusing Northam in an ad of abetting the rise of the MS-13 street gang. In the end, he lost by nine points, owing to a decisive defeat in Virginia’s once-purple suburbs.

The conventional political wisdom was that Gillespie’s attempts to mimic the president served him poorly. But Matney insisted that the lesson of Gillespie’s crushing loss was that he didn’t go far enough. “He wouldn’t press the issues that separate us and wouldn’t attack the other side,” Matney said. “I watched a debate between Northam and Gillespie, and I was telling people, this is ridiculous. Oh, you go ahead and talk. Oh, I’m sorry, I interrupted you. I’m like, are you guys going to go outside and kiss after? I mean, it was terrible. It was the worst campaign I’ve ever seen in my life.” In November, Matney beat his own opponent, the 12-year Democratic incumbent, by six points.

“What Trump understood,” says the Republican consultant Jeff Roe, who ran Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, “is that Republican voters have become more polarized but less ideological. A great number of them cared about some of the issues, but they didn’t want esoteric debates on trade policy, or, frankly, deficits or things like that either. They just wanted a politician to be on their side.”

There’s one way to interpret the party’s sudden receptiveness to policies like the child-care tax credit or coverage for pre-existing conditions, which is that voters are consciously urging their leadership toward a new ideological framework. The other interpretation, and the one Roe believes is correct, is that the Republican base today is willing to bend more on policy in service of what it believes to be a more existential war.

Roe leveraged this observation in Alabama’s Senate Republican primary this spring, running Tommy Tuberville’s campaign against Jeff Sessions, whose devotion to formalizing Trump’s instincts on trade, immigration and law and order was unmatched within the party. It was true that the former senator and attorney general was already loathed by much of the Republican electorate, even his ex-constituents in Alabama, for “letting down” the president. But Roe was most struck by the resonance of another attack, on Sessions’s vote to confirm President Obama’s pick for attorney general in 2009. “Jeff Sessions voting for Eric Holder?” he said. “Yeah, those days are over. If Jeff Sessions were a senator in 2024, he ain’t voting for Eric Holder.

“And I think that’s going to be a pretty critical component of the legacy of this presidency, be it four years or eight years,” he went on. “It’s: Are you willing to go to Washington and not cabal with the other side? Because they want somebody, above all, that’s going to fight the Democrats. They actually don’t really care often what you’re fighting about.”

Marc Hetherington, a political-science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says this is where efforts to “refine” Trumpism will very likely hit a wall, as they implicitly assume that Trump’s supporters see his “aggressiveness” as a distraction from his appeal rather than a key feature of it. Hetherington and his colleagues are in the early stages of research that suggests Trump’s most salient contribution to the party is in many ways apolitical. They’ve found that those who agree that only fighters are successful in life, or that the best strategy is to play hardball, even if it means being unfair, tend to prefer Donald Trump, while those who agree with statements like “cooperation is the key to success” tend to prefer Mitt Romney. “It’s not a partisan thing at all,” Hetherington told me. “It’s a worldview thing. And now, there’s a constituency in the Republican Party for that.”

On an evening in October, I drove to Johnstown, Pa., for one of the final rallies of Trump’s re-election campaign. On the edge of a parking lot outside a fire station a mile or so from the rally venue, I found dozens of people, huddled under blankets and Gap hoodies, holding their phones aloft. They were almost all white, many of them men and women in their 50s and 60s, others young families with children. A minute or two later, Air Force One sliced through the black sky. Its drone muffled the whoops and hollers that followed. These weren’t rallygoers, it turned out: They just wanted to see the plane.

“He has his base so energized,” Jeff Link, 65, told me, his cheeks flushed from the cold. “Look, we came just to get a mile away from him!”

Link and three friends had driven from a couple of towns over for this moment. What did Trumpism mean to them? I asked. “It means for the people,” Susan Datsko said. “We are for the people.”

“America first, absolutely,” Charlotte McFadden echoed. A retired nurse and lifelong Republican, she went on to describe the us-versus-them posture that Trump, to her, so revolutionarily embodied: “We have got to stop trying to save everybody in the world. Americans are very, very generous people. But we’re getting crushed. We just want people to come the right way; we welcome them just like our ancestors were welcomed. And we can’t help anybody if we can’t even help our own people. You have to help yourself before you can help others.”

Maybe others in the party before believed this, too; what made Trump special to them was his willingness to say it. “Not to be rude,” Rick Datsko said, “but the past Republicans never had any balls. They never stood up for Republicans. Look at Romney: Obama chewed him up.”

“We all understand he’s a little crude,” Link said.

“But crude is OK!” Datsko interjected.

Link went on: “We knew that he had no halo on his head,” he said. “We’re all like that a little bit. So we kind of identified with that. We understood.”

They struggled to articulate precisely what they wanted from the party whenever the post-Trump era commenced. Just more of this. “The same thing,” Datsko said.

“To continue along the same lines,” McFadden agreed. To perpetuate the euphoria coursing through still more parking lots nearby, the merchandise truck catering to “THE SILENT MAJORITY,” the expletive-laden T-shirts, the dozens of Trump flags whipping in the wind.

Still, an inchoate anxiety lurked behind the mania, a fleeting cognizance that for all their demands of more, nothing could ever match this. Even the thought of four more years brought its own strange layer of distress. Because if Trump wins, as Mark Matney explained to me, he can never run for president again. What happens, then, when it’s all over?

“My scary thought,” Matney said, “is where do we find another one like him?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button