What will happen to the Republican Party after Trump?

The post-Trump GOP will be made up of 2 warring factions

Marco Rubio, a Tea Partier, and Larry Hogan.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Regardless of whether President Trump is re-elected in November, the future of the Republican Party belongs to him. His legacy — arguments about its true value and how it should be understood, its relationship with previous right-wing insurgent movements such as the Tea Party — will determine the course of the GOP's fortunes for the next decade.

This will be the case even if the moment Trump leaves office a consensus emerges in his party in favor of repudiating him. I do not expect this to happen, and not only because the American people are absurdly sentimental about living former presidents. The anti-Trump wing of the GOP does not, for all practical purposes, exist. The Bulwark, the Lincoln Project, and similar outfits are part of the centrist liberal media and political establishment; they will not find themselves welcome partners in a post-Trump conservative coalition.

Which is why I feel comfortable dismissing the people who are already making 2024 noise about Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, the blue-state moderate who briefly considered challenging the president in this year's Republican presidential primaries. Hogan's Heroes have the same lunatic energy as supporters of Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah whose ill-fated presidential campaign in 2012 made him a media darling. Huntsman won endorsement after endorsement from newspapers in early primary states and was much beloved by cable news hosts — and practically no one else. He came in seventh place in the Iowa caucus and finished third in the New Hampshire primary before dropping out.

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Instead of a new GOP that combines the worst features of the old one (a relentless foreign adventurism impervious to the reality of our last two decades of failed wars) with indifference to the social issues that actually drive conservative voters to the polls (a pronounced rather than merely implicit contempt for the priorities of the base), I expect the post-Trump Republican Party to be a battle between two factions claiming the mantle of Eternal Trumpism.

The first of these broadly defined groups will be the Tea Party revivalists, politicians in the mold of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. For them, the Trumpian revolution, such as it was, was primarily a matter of style and emphasis. The current president is an effective leader for his party because of his abrasive rhetoric and outrageous politically incorrect behavior, both of which harken back to the heyday of conservative opposition to President Obama. In defense of their interpretation of Trump’s legacy, they can point to the unremarkable nature of his few achievements in office, chief among them a tax bill passed on a party-line vote in December 2017. For good or ill, such legislation represents the summit of conservative ambition (the last time Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress early in George W. Bush’s presidency they also cut taxes). It is too early to say what candidate or candidates will make this pitch in 2024. The lane is wide open.

The second and more interesting faction that will emerge in a post-Trump GOP will also insist that the current president's legacy belongs to them. But instead of his caustic behavior, they will argue that the most valuable thing about Trump's presidency was his destruction — intentional or otherwise — of certain essentially libertarian assumptions about the role of the state among American conservatives. Instead of major pieces of legislation or even executive actions taken by the president, they will point to what largely amount to a series of stray comments made by Trump since 2015: his defense of Social Security and Medicare, his rejection of free trade, his (apparently forever stalled) attempt to pass a major infrastructure spending bill, his occasional comments about breaking up big tech monopolies, perhaps even his past support for single-payer health care.

The best representatives of this new group are two senators, Marco Rubio from Florida and Josh Hawley, the young freshman from Missouri, both of whom combine old-fashioned social conservatism with pragmatic views about economics that would have been dismissed as "socialist" by the average Obama-era congressional Republican. What this group lacks is anyone currently in office who will have sufficient electoral appeal among the small but crucially important swing voters in the Midwest who will reject a platform with which they otherwise agree because its messengers strike them as snobbish out-of-touch intellectuals. This, I suspect, is why many people who would like to see the GOP become a pro-solidarity working-class party are clamoring for Fox News' Tucker Carlson to run for president in 2024.

I have painted these groups with deliberately broad strokes. Some individual Republican politicians, such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, exhibit characteristics of both; many others, indeed perhaps the vast majority of actual sitting elected officials in the GOP have no real sympathy with either except insofar as they can be effective vehicles for their own political fortunes and those of the party. A pure creature of Washington like Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the current House minority leader, does not especially care whether the Republican Party is dedicated to Founding Fathers LARPing and Barry Goldwater clichés, or to a German or East Asian-style industrial policy and a purportedly pro-family economics. The only thing that matters is winning. Whether either interpretation of Trump's legacy is capable of doing so four years from now is very much an open question.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.