For the past five years, Donald Trump has dominated the Republican party, and even after his loss in November to President-elect Biden, he continues to set the agenda for the party that every other Republican must follow. Over the course of the past month, he’s focused almost solely on spreading misinformation about widespread voter fraud, launching long-shot legal suits against states, and attacking Republicans on Twitter who haven’t immediately jumped to his defense. So far, Trump’s efforts have been unsuccessful, as nearly every court case has been met with defeat. But the most long-lasting legacy of a sitting president attacking the democratic institutions that enabled his victory in the first place could be recreating the Republican party in his own anti-democratic image. Let’s look at a few different ways this could shake out in the years to come.
Path #1: The Mitt Romney Playbook
For the non-alarmists, this seems like the most likely outcome. On January 20th, 2021, Joe Biden will assume the Presidency and Republicans can begin the process of slowly distancing themselves from Trump while also not alienating his base of hardcore supporters. Not much will change for Republicans legislatively, as the Mitch McConnell led Senate will almost certainly hamstring the new president at every turn. However, they might be more open to having a relatively smooth confirmation process for some of Biden’s more centrist cabinet members, being less combative of budget proposals, and potentially finally deliver a much-needed second round of COVID-19 economic relief. Republicans might ease up on some of their anti-mask rhetoric and begin to take the pandemic more seriously.
Electorally, Republicans actually outpaced Trump on a national ballot in the 2020 elections, suggesting that a sizeable chunk of voters cast their ballots for Joe Biden, but then voted Republican for their representative in Congress or the state House. Party leaders might see the writing on the wall, and pivot to recruiting more women and people of color to run for office in red and purple states. In 2024, Republicans could throw their weight behind Nikki Haley (who has certainly distanced herself from the Trump administration since her brief tenure as U.N. ambassador), Tim Scott, or Josh Hawley to reorient the GOP to a more moderate, policy-focused operation and focus on regaining suburban women while building on gains among Latino voters.
Path #2: The New Trump playbook
One needs only to look at the last two remaining Senate races in Georgia to know that Republicans, at least in the immediate future, are still going to run as far to the right as they can and defend President Trump at every opportunity. Both Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have bet their re-election campaigns on the president’s extremely high approval ratings among conservative Republicans, and the battle between Loeffler and Congressman Doug Collins for a spot in the runoff often seemed like a battle to determine who was the greater Trump loyalist. Republicans could just continue this trend and seek to continue to galvanize their base in the same manner by anointing a new Trump-like figure.
If the Republicans chose this path, the four years of the Biden administration would be total scorched earth politics; assuming at least one of Loeffler or Perdue wins their seats back, the GOP would be in a position to block every one of Biden’s cabinet picks, leaving the executive branch crippled and in disarray. They could delay every nominee for the Supreme Court and other federal judgeships until at least 2022 and refuse to work with Biden and the Democrats on any major legislative achievement. Biden would be limited to creating policy through executive order. Republicans might weigh their options and think that, while they lost in 2020, Donald Trump did bring in legions of passionate conservative voters into the Republican fold and the risk of pivoting in a more moderate direction outweighs the current rewards.
With Trump no longer in office, the chief concern of the party should be finding the new figurehead that would be able to single-handedly dominate the political landscape like Trump has done since 2015. Trump’s greatest strength is that he has made his party into a cult of personality; if they want to replicate the same results, they need to find a leader who is as equally suited to the task as Trump. They might already have a perfect candidate who shares the same name in Donald Trump Jr., or could consider Ivanka or Eric Trump to take up their father’s mantle. Tucker Carlson, as a well-known television personality like Trump was prior to running, could make sense as a charismatic communicator. Or maybe Senator Tom Cotton, Representative Matt Gaetz, or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, all Trump loyalists, could tap into the Trump vein while also having held previous office. In any case, pursuing this option requires the party to move on fast and unify around a new party champion. I don’t see this happening immediately, and I think a certain someone would make life difficult for Republicans if they did.
Path #3: The Rerun Playbook
That someone is of course Donald Trump. Trump isn’t going anywhere. One of the things that made him so successful at hoarding media attention is that he isn’t limited to press conferences in the White House briefing room or addresses to the nation from the Oval Office to communicate with the American people. He tweets incessantly, holds rallies all over the country, and frequently appears on cable news – all of which he will continue to do over the course of Biden’s term. Any liberal dreams of Donald Trump slinking off quietly to Mar-a-Lago, content to spend his golden years playing golf and spending time with his grandchildren are delusional. There is a scenario in which Donald Trump retains the same level of media attention criticizing Joe Biden and rallying his supporters against him, while also founding Trump News and becoming the new go to network for conservative political commentary. His decision to endorse Ronna McDaniel for another term as Chairwoman of the RNC and attack ‘Rino’ governors like Doug Ducey of Arizona and Brian Kemp of Georgia suggests that he is not content to sit on the sidelines and allow a new generation of Republicans to run with the baton.
And of course, he is eligible to run again in 2024 for a second term. Should he enter the race, it would be next to impossible for anyone to beat him. Trump loyalists would immediately drop out or not run at all, prominent figures in the Trump administration who might have presidential aspirations like Vice President Pence and Ambassador Haley would be hard-pressed to challenge him, and anti-Trump Republicans like Larry Hogan and Ben Sasse wouldn’t garner enough support to credibly threaten Trump’s hold on the Republican party.
In all likelihood, the answer to the question of how the Republican party will change in a Joe Biden presidency is a mixture of all three paths. Some Republicans in purple or blue states will welcome not having to support Trump’s policies and rhetoric, and some Republicans in red states will continue to champion the former president and ride the coattails of his high approval ratings within the party. It is safe to say that in this last month, the GOP has shown itself to be far more fractured than it would like, and that is not likely to change.