THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The Republicans, 2020-2024
This book looks at the populist grassroots that have taken over the Republican Party and explains how they have imposed new rules on American politics, how those rules are affecting the 2024 presidential race in real time, what the consequences of those rules are for the country, and why the party is not about to “snap out of it” and pivot away from Trump.
Donald Trump remains a very strong contender to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. Yet this would be a substantial departure from history — no major party has renominated a losing presidential aspirant since 1968, and none has renominated a former president since 1892. The process by which a party “learns” from an electoral loss seems upended for Republicans in the wake of 2020, with many rejecting the idea that there could be better candidates, and some even rejecting that the loss occurred.
I am conducting a real-time investigation of the Republican grassroots during the 2020-24 presidential nomination cycle, using a range of interviews, surveys, and measures of voting behavior. This project demonstrates that the informal rules that govern the party have changed dramatically over the past decade, and that a populist and nativist faction that was powerful among the grassroots for decades but often shunned by party elites eventually seized control of the party and imposed its new rules. These rules shun concepts like electability, forbearance, and conceding lost elections, and instead advance candidates and policies they like regardless of external consequences. I examine the impact those rule changes have had on party decision-making, campaigning, governing, and American democracy.
I expect to publish this book in early or mid-2025.
Takeover or Rising Faction?
- Donald Trump is often described as having engineered a hostile takeover of the Republican Party; he caught it at a moment of weakness and division and leveraged his wealth and fame to win. In fact, Trump was just the champion of a minority faction in the Republican Party that had been there for decades – a nativist “America First” faction that often feels ignored. It’s a faction that hasn’t had much representation in Washington but has occasionally found voice in politicians like George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Pat Buchanan. It’s had a growing power among the grassroots, however, for many years – the main divide in the Republican Party isn’t so much Trumpists vs. non-Trumpists but grassroots vs. DC.
Key to the Trump takeover of the Republican Party was work at the local level. With the help of loyal lieutenants like Steve Bannon, Trump supporters ran for and won many county-level party positions between 2016 and 2021, with a particular drive to do so immediately following the 2020 election. One indicator of increased radicalization of local parties is their use of censures. County parties have occasionally censured officeholders, but only sparingly, with just two or three per year across the country. In 2021, county Republican Party organizations censured more than 20 GOP officeholders, all for a failure to support Donald Trump in his impeachment trial or in his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. This chapter looks at where there has been the greatest turnover and radicalization within local Republican party groups.
Narratives and Electability
My previous book suggested that narratives about why the 2016 election came out as it did affected Democrats’ thinking for the 2020 nomination, altering the sorts of candidates they believed could win. Did this apply to Republicans between 2020 and 2024? Using interviews and survey experiments, I show that Trump remained a favorite among Republicans regardless of the type of media coverage he received or what kinds of media were covering him. In a small number of cases, however, Republicans who heard critical Trump coverage from a conservative publication tended to like him but think him less electable. However, this describes very few people in the real world. This is related in some ways to beliefs about electoral fraud – an argument that prevents one from needing to consider electability. (Why learn from a loss if he didn’t lose?) This is a remarkable deviation from past party behavior, and explains why he is the first losing incumbent to (likely) be re-nominated since 1892.
Fox, Trump, and Primaries
In 2018, Ron DeSantis became the Republican nominee for Governor in Florida despite running against a primary opponent with greater funding and broader party support in large part because Fox News gave him extensive promotion – he won the “Fox Primary” – and Donald Trump followed that with an endorsement that sealed the deal. This chapter specifically focuses on the Senate and gubernatorial Republican primaries of 2022, showing how Fox News coverage and Trump endorsements exerted an influence rarely seen in previous primaries. Candidates who Trump endorsed did about 16 points better than those he did not endorse, and many contests were settled by margins less than that. This helps to demonstrate Trump’s ongoing control over Republican officeholders. Even those who do not like or agree with him knows he holds their next nomination in his hands. This chapter also speaks to the declining importance of particular state contests, like the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, in picking winners or winnowing losers. Increasingly, those choices are being made by a handful of people not in those states.
The Invisible Primary
How did the Republican Party ultimately select a 2024 presidential nominee? This chapter looks at the “invisible primary,” the process by which the party converges on a nominee prior to the first primaries and caucuses of 2024. I make use of interviews and a survey of county Republican party chairs starting in early 2023 to understand how these figures were leaning and what information they were using to make a decision. While there was definitely discussion about candidates, Trump was overwhelmingly the favorite and presumed nominee, and concerns about electability, impeachments, indictments, convictions, and insurrections were largely ignored. Elite level debate about how the party needed to pivot away from Trump never gained real ground among the grassroots, the ones really in charge of the decision.
Consequences for Campaigning
Campaign strategies have changed significantly in recent years, and Trump has been instrumental in highlighting not only new ways to campaign but also the irrelevance of many campaign decisions. Saddled with many financial and legal scandals before even running for office, Trump not only didn’t avoid these issues when campaigning against Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, but actively accused his opponents of the same things. Recent campaigns have been waged with the expressed intent of provoking outrage and turnout among the base rather than persuading swing voters. Perhaps more importantly, Trump has often campaigned in ways that no campaign consultant would ever advise – attacking highly sympathetic individuals (Gold Star Families, John McCain), bragging about sexual assault, and more – only to have it not really affect election results at all.
Consequences for Governing
As the norms-based faction of the Republican Party withers away, so too do the norms that used to predominate in DC. We saw examples of this prior to Donald Trump’s arrival in Washington, of course, including several government shutdowns and the refusal to consider Barack Obama’s third Supreme Court nominee during his entire last year in office. But norms erosion accelerated during Trump’s presidency, to the point that the final night of the 2020 Republican National Convention was held on the South Lawn of the White House, where the traditionally nonpartisan space bore bright Trump-Pence signs. This has bled somewhat into the Democratic side, as well, although that party is still playing catch up.
Consequences for Democracy
This concluding chapter focuses on the most concerning norm erosion, the idea of “loser’s consent.” The legitimacy of all democracies hinges on the idea that the loser of an election will concede and there will be a peaceful transition of power. The fact that Trump’s election denialism has not only not harmed him in the eyes of Republicans, but has even helped his 2024 campaign, and that even many his rivals for the presidential race were backing him on this, is telling about the future of the party and the precarious state of American democracy.
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