It is heartening to see some important Republican figures come out against Donald Trump. But it’s worth noting that many embraced him when he proposed a Muslim ban, tried to extort Ukraine’s president, was impeached and tried to overturn an election. His real sin, in their eyes, is that he is losing popularity.
However, Trump’s slump among Republicans could change. Imagine that during the 2024 campaign, the Republican Party runs a large and varied field: Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, Larry Hogan and Liz Cheney (among other possible candidates). Trump starts with a shrunken base but generates enormous publicity and wins the single-largest vote share in the early primaries. He doesn’t get past 50 percent of the vote in any state — but most Republican state primary systems favor the front-runner, and, in state after state, he just does better than anyone else. As Ronald Brownstein reminds us, that’s how Trump became the presumptive nominee in 2016 while only garnering about 40 percent of total votes.
Voters did deliver a powerful rebuke to the Republicans in the midterm elections, and clearly it was centered around two issues, election denial and abortion. But those who shifted appear to have been independents and a sliver of moderate Republicans. These are not the voters who will determine the results of Republican primaries.
The results also don’t tell us enough about a possible matchup between Trump and DeSantis. DeSantis’s victory in the Florida gubernatorial race was impressive. But in the early stages of a presidential campaign, DeSantis would not be facing Trump mano a mano but rather as one choice among many. A New York Times/Siena poll from October found that almost half of likely primary voters still preferred Trump, with about a quarter favoring DeSantis and only 6 percent favoring Pence. DeSantis’s popularity will probably have increased in recent weeks, but in a possible 2024 presidential campaign he will be fighting for “Not Trump” voters, and the Not Trump Lane of the Republican Party is going to get very crowded.
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Were Trump to have a revival of his fortunes, many would jump back on his bandwagon. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has already reserved a spot there, promising that if Trump were to get the nomination he would “enthusiastically support him.” Republican officials seem to be hoping that their voters will do their dirty work for them and deliver them from Trump — reversing the usual roles of leaders and followers. But it won’t work. The party must put an end to its moral cowardice and finally and frontally confront the cancer within. Republican leaders need to explain to their voters that Trump is a demagogue who tried to undermine American democracy, which should make him an unacceptable nominee for Republicans.
In a fascinating essay in Foreign Affairs, Barnard College scholar Sheri Berman points out that America is something of an outlier among well-established democracies. She notes that in many Western European countries, right-wing populist parties have been forced to retreat from their most extreme positions and accept mainstream stances on issues such as the European Union, the euro and the war in Ukraine. But in the United States, the Republican Party, having opted for extremism in the wake of the Trump revolution, has been far more willing to go along with his dictates, with a slate of almost 300 election deniers as candidates in the midterms.
The reason, Berman points out (both in the essay and in a conversation with me), is that the institutions and norms of liberal democracy are strong in Western Europe. The political parties act responsibly, European and national institutions maintain their independence, and leaders call out bad behavior. So, from Sweden to Italy, when radical right-wing parties come to power, they are rarely able to change policy along the dramatic lines that they had once called for. She notes that in Sweden and Italy, the far-right parties have had to moderate their rhetoric and policies significantly to attract support and be seen as serious enough to govern.
The United States, unfortunately, has a weaker, more open political system to begin with, defined nowadays by primaries, money, social media and celebrity, all of which enable an entrepreneurial politician like Trump to take over a major political party and turn it into something resembling a personality cult. (At the last Republican National Convention, not one of the former presidents or presidential nominees spoke, but six members of Trump’s family were given prominent slots, something unthinkable in a European country.) Berman writes that “Freedom House and other groups that track democratic development, such as V-Dem, have noted a marked decline in the strength of American democracy but have found no similar decline in Western Europe.”
In countries where democratic institutions are weaker — such as Hungary, Turkey and (alas) the United States — demagogues change parties rather than the other way around. To fend off the threat, Republican leaders must act to purge their party (and country) of extremism. Even after the midterms, Trump and Trumpism will not magically vanish.