President Trump is trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the polls, as he has been for months. I do not know who will win this election — nor do I care to predict — but these survey trends are easily consistent enough to raise the question: Whither the GOP if Trump loses?
The president does not have a designated political heir, and it's an open question whether his mantle will be a desirable legacy should Biden manage an embarrassing sweep. The most likely short-term outcome, I suspect, is a jostling for power among at least five intra-party factions, all but one of which could capture party leadership in the form of the 2024 presidential nod.
The first and weakest faction is whatever libertarian-leaners and Tea Party leftovers are still hanging on in the Republican Party. In federal elected office with any modicum of national recognition, this is a list I can count on one hand — Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), and ... that's about it, I think, since Rep. Justin Amash (L-Mich.) jumped ship and decided not to seek re-election. There's little room and certainly no durable, institutional power for libertarians in Trump's GOP, and that's unlikely to change after his departure, though the faction may well continue to linger.
The next faction is the old-school establishment/fusionist GOP — people like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), and many congressional backbenchers who are still in basically the same policy space as when George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney were their party's standard-bearers. To varying degrees, depending on their districts and principles, they may have publicly flattered or bucked Trump these past four years. But with Trump out the door, this group will happily get back to normal insofar as that's possible: cutting taxes and praising free trade; reveling in "global leadership" and prolonging the war on terror without bothering to bemoan its length and cost as Trump sometimes does; and talking about "integrity" and "family values" without constant negative object lessons from their own president.
Then there's the faction I expect to dominate the congressional GOP, at least so long as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is around. It's a group I'd describe as the old GOP with a populist, nationalist, and nativist veneer. Think Vice President Mike Pence, who is the 2024 GOP primary favorite. By "veneer" I don't mean that this group's support for things like trade war, "America first," and harsh immigration restrictions is faked for voter approval, only that it is often a relatively thin layer atop otherwise long-familiar Republican priorities. This is the result of a recognition (sometimes welcome, sometimes not) that Trump's base liked him because of his deviations from the party's norm, not despite them — and that GOP style, rhetoric, and policy will have to accommodate that to retain needed votes. This is how much of the Republican Party has functioned with Trump in office, and the habit can easily stick around after he's gone.
Fourth is a literal Trump dynasty, in which Trump bequeaths his cult of personality to one of his children (most likely, Donald Trump Jr.) or even attempts to stay personally in charge of the GOP until death does them part. (If Grover Cleveland can serve a non-consecutive second term, why not Trump? He'll be 78 on Election Day 2024, yes, but that's a decade younger than the average life expectancy for American men in his wealth cohort.) How feasible this is remains to be seen: I'm not sure Jr. can effectively replicate his father's appeal to voters, and the Republican establishment may not be terribly interested in continuing to grovel before a demonstrated loser.
Lastly, there's the ideological Trump dynasty, which could take two forms. The fringier version would have the cult pass to people like Laura Loomer, a Republican congressional candidate in Florida who calls herself a "proud Islamophobe" and supports the QAnon conspiracy movement. Alternatively, someone smarter and more conventionally appropriate than the president — say, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), or Fox News host Tucker Carlson — could pick up the banner of ideological Trumpism and run with it to far more competent effect. David Brooks predicted something like this in a lengthy August New York Times piece; I'm not convinced it will be party-wide as he describes, but a strong faction seems probable. (Consider that Trump's job approval remains consistently around 90 percent among Republicans; in fact, it's currently on a slight upward trend.)
Contrary to predictions of a Republican Party crack-up, I doubt we'll see the GOP formally split into these different groups, for the same reason no third party has gained traction despite widespread dissatisfaction with major-party offerings: Our electoral system makes it unacceptably risky. Republican strategists know well that, as difficult as it may be for these factions to cooperate, going separate ways would mean ceding immense electoral advantage to a formally intact Democratic Party.
That reality makes a deliberate split far too costly to be considered — though it doesn't rule out an unplanned split, in an extreme scenario. It certainly doesn't preclude a wild Republican presidential primary in 2024.