We've been hearing about it for years from NeverTrump Republican officeholders and likeminded pundits — and it's reaching a crescendo once again as members of the House GOP move to defenestrate Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney for failing to demonstrate sufficient fealty to former President Donald Trump. I'm talking about the claim that the Republican Party is doomed, sinking, headed for electoral oblivion because of its enthusiastic embrace of a corrupt, lying, and bigoted carnival barker who repels far more voters than he attracts.
If only it were true.
In reality, the Republican Party is and will likely remain highly competitive at the state and local levels, with the presidency itself well within reach. And no, this isn't just because Trump's Big Lie about the 2020 election has convinced his party to cheat. That is certainly something to be concerned about. But it will only come into play if the margins between the parties in a future election are close. What I'm referring to, instead, is the likelihood of the Republican Party continuing to be electorally viable, prevailing at the ballot box fair and square.
The evidence for it is overwhelming — so much so that those who fail to acknowledge it must be understood to be rendering political judgments on the basis of outright wishful thinking. Claiming the GOP is in a state of electoral collapse simply isn't a serious position.
Let start with the raw numbers.
Nearly 63 million people voted for Donald Trump in 2016. That gave him just 46.1 percent of the vote, but it was enough to prevail over Hillary Clinton's 48.2 percent because of the vagaries of the Electoral College. After four years of corruption, lies, insults, and incompetence from the Trump White House, a successful re-election bid seemed unlikely. And indeed, Trump lost. But he also increased his vote share to 46.9 percent with a little more than 74 million total votes.
Which means that 11 million more people were drawn to Trump's Republican Party after observing it up close for four years than were willing to take a chance on it in 2016. Add in the GOP's gains among Black and especially Hispanic voters across the country in 2020, and we get a picture of a party significantly expanding its base of support over time.
Of course, the Democrats increased their vote share even more over those same four years — from Clinton's nearly 66 million votes to Joe Biden's 81 million. But a lot of those 15 million additional votes came from suburbs, where Trump was especially, and perhaps uniquely, unpopular. What happens if the Republican Party nominates a candidate in 2024 who is able to build on Trump's gains while neutralizing at least some of his toxicity? It's impossible to say for sure. But the picture certainly isn't one in which the GOP sinks like the Titanic. (Democrats who like to find solace in news that the number of Americans identifying themselves to pollsters as Republican has dropped from the low 30s to 25 percent in recent months would do well to remember that the number has been equally low or lower at many times over the past two decades.)
Despite losing the White House in 2020, Republicans nonetheless managed to evenly divide the Senate with the Democrats, to keep the Democratic margin in the House razor thin, to hold a majority of state legislatures, and to control a majority of governors' mansions. For a party that lost the presidency, that's not a bad record at all.
And things look mighty encouraging for Republicans heading in to the 2022 midterm elections. The party that holds the White House nearly always loses seats two years in. The net loss of even a single Senate seat or a small handful of House seats next year would be enough for Republicans to win control of either chamber. That's quite likely to happen, if only because it usually does, when all else is equal.
But heading into 2022, all else isn't likely to be equal. In fact, it could be far worse than that for the Democrats.
That's because the Democrats increasingly find themselves on the wrong (unpopular) side of cultural disputes with Republicans. The list of controversial positions the GOP delights in attacking includes: the use of the ideology of “antiracism” to teach American history in public schools; the spread of “woke” ideas in workplaces and the corporate sector; the insistence that tolerance demands the affirmation of radical ideas about the mutability of gender; and the spread of so-called cancel culture throughout American public life. Republicans increasingly define themselves by their opposition to these trends, and Democrats … don't so much affirm them as go along passively for fear of antagonizing the activists who advocate in their favor.
As the results of last week's local elections in the U.K. show quite clearly, with support for the Labor Party collapsing in its working-class strongholds, the political right benefits enormously by defining itself in opposition to the cultural left. Once the left comes to be perceived as advocating for a radical cultural agenda, its electoral prospects sink. Trump was so personally unappealing to so many Americans that his presence on the ballot in 2016 and 2020 may have kept this phenomenon from being felt with full force in 2020. That may no longer be the case through the next few election cycles — either because Trump isn't on the ballot or because unpopular leftward cultural trends intensify, or both.
And that's nothing compared to what's likely to happen if those trends intensify at the very moment when public opinion is shifting strongly in the opposite direction — as it might if the sharp rise in violent crime over the past year continues while activists (and their publicists in the mainstream media) advocate more loudly for such wildly unpopular proposals as the abolition of police and prisons.
There's obviously no certainty to any of this. Republicans could scuttle their own prospects in a million ways. The Biden administration's strategy of ramming through as many big-ticket spending items as possible between now and November 2022 could well pay off electorally, defying historic trends and spelling major problems for the GOP going forward. And, of course, the fundamentals give incumbent presidents a big advantage in seeking re-election. So for all we know, Democrats could well find themselves in a very favorable position two or four years from now.
The point is simply that reports of the Republican Party's imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated. The GOP has been moving rightward on certain issues (immigration and trade), moderating on others (government spending), making peace with corruption and full-spectrum mendaciousness, and transforming policy disagreements into cultural conflicts whenever possible. I consider most of those changes bad for the country, and some of them (like sowing distrust in our electoral system) downright dangerous. But so far, at least, they haven't proven to be all that bad for the GOP.
Pretending otherwise won't make it so.