It is no secret that a fundamental shift has occurred in the Republican Party platform since Donald Trump announced his candidacy six years ago. His omnipresence has had effects at every level of government in the United States and continues to consume domestic and international headspace, even since his election loss and the beginning of the Biden Administration. Moving on from the Trump presidency and simply letting it fade into history would, however, be a mistake. The question then becomes what is next? Next for the Republican Party and next for our democracy.
The beauty, or issue, with American politics is that the next election is always right around the corner. Many pieces have already been written about what the Republican platform will look like in 2022 and 2024 and how much effect “Trumpism” will have on it. For those of us who saw the Trump presidency as more than a treasure trove for political satire and memes, it is apparent that Donald Trump continues to be a formidable force within the Republican Party and that his influence may only be growing since he left office. One need look no further than the speech Trump gave during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past weekend. A straw poll taken at the even showed strong continued support for Donald Trump. According to Politico, 95% of respondents advocated that Republicans should continue to push Trump’s political agenda, 68% called on Trump to run again in 2024 and 55% choose him as their top candidate above other potential contenders such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Trump’s continued popularity has also led to multiple establishment Republican politicians being chastised and even censured for opposing him. Censures of longstanding critics, such as Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse and Utah Senator Mitt Romney are less surprising, but the censure of North Carolina’s senior Senator Richard Burr certainly raised eyebrows. These censures by state Republican officials mean that Trump may have been the most visible embodiment of a concerning shift in the Republican Party, but that his agenda is not a flash in the pan.
The reason this shift is especially concerning, apart from some of the questionable policies being pushed and the at times open embrace of fringe conspiracy theories, is that the punishment of those who are willing to speak out against “Trumpism” erodes the gatekeeping function that political parties provide. The current modus operandi in the Republican Party is to ostracize anyone who speaks out against Donald Trump and his policies. As a result, powerful Republican figures such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy routinely contorted themselves to justify Trump’s and his administration’s actions during his presidency. This stands in stark contrast to previous gatekeeping performed by American political parties who successfully blocked the candidacies of figures such as Henry Ford and even attempts at gatekeeping made by Republicans during the 2016 Republican primary.
It appears that the Republican Party is now not only ignoring historical precedent of gatekeeping in our political system but openly welcoming problematic figures into their ranks. This is not new in the House of Representatives where Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, and Lauren Boebert are the latest installment. However, the silencing of dissenting voices in the Senate could be the beginning of a trend that sees the voices of Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley and freshman Senator Tommy Tuberville further elevated. The party establishment, who traditionally served as a moderating force, are encouraging candidates who are supportive of Donald Trump’s policies. At times, this encouragement has been at the expense of more established incumbents, a relatively rare occurrence in American politics.
To be fair, there are some in the party who are unwilling to simply accept this new reality of “Trumpism” as the face of the conservative movement. The sitting politicians mentioned above and numerous voices in the media and at think-tanks have spoken about the need for the Republican Party to expand its voter base and that Trump’s agenda may not be the most effective route to do so. Unfortunately, these voices are in the minority.
Looking ahead to 2022 and 2024, it currently seems clear that the Republican Party is not interested in keeping candidates who openly support conspiracy theories that undermine democratic norms off the ticket which could ultimately harm not only the party, but American democracy writ large. The party truly stands at a crossroads. Will it continue to bet on the strength of Trumpism and the grassroots movement that has grown from it or will the party establishment retake its position as gatekeepers, seek to course correct and return the platform to its more traditional roots? The midterm elections will likely give us prime insight into what direction the party has chosen.