Tim O’Brien, a biographer of Donald Trump who got the inevitable lawsuit alongside his book, had this observation about the 2016 presidential campaign after the video leaks and women who have stepped forward to accuse Donald Trump of sexual assault during the past two weeks: “I feel like I’ve learned more about the country by virtue of this exposure to the Trump virus than I’ve learned about Trump himself,” O’Brien said.
We have learned, to great horror, that O’Brien’s “Trump virus” flourishes in our body politic more than we care to imagine. Having self-immolated at a third debate, Trump seems likely to lose the race, but about 40% of the country will still vote for him on Election Day. Celebrate that if you choose, but consider this: his showing has already made presidential wannabes think through what kind of Trumpist Republican might drive that number to 51% in a future election.
Francis Fukuyama once suggested than The End of History was nigh, the world having settled on liberal democracy as its preferred model. Now even he is fretting that a highly illiberal, Trumpist Republican—but one nice enough to meet your parents—might be next. “Real worry is that [Trump’s] banner will be picked up by someone much smarter and more self-disciplined next time,” Fukuyama tweeted after the debate.
There’s already a Republican playbook, one written in the aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964. That election represents, to Republicans who view themselves as true conservatives, a lost battle that galvanized them to win the war by electing Ronald Reagan in 1980. Goldwater would have won, had a lily-livered Establishment backed him, and Reagan proved it, the story goes.
Trump’s whining on Twitter that Paul Ryan won’t steadfastly back a serial groper sounded the starting gun for Republicans who want to carry Trumpism, for want of a better word, into the future, the way Goldwater acolytes carried his banner into the 1980s. Except that this time, the starting point resembles an American-style fascism more than Goldwater’s paleo-conservatism.
Who would prove that a Trumpist candidate could win next time around? How to separate Trump from Trumpism? Mike Pence could kick off the conversation. The 57-year-old might have the right mixture of proximity and distance to Trump to harvest his followers, having accepted the vice-presidential nominee, but then stiff-armed Trump at a few key moments.
A cliche, but true: you learn more from defeat than victory. Trump having made every possible wrong step in the general, they know what not to do. The nomination process clued Republicans in on what their base really wants to hear. And the bar has been set distressingly low for a future Republican nominee’s affect and style. If you avoid grievous insults to Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, Gold Star families, don’t brag about pawing genitals, and don’t question the legitimacy of elections—honestly, Donald—you’ve come out ahead.
The Trump issue set won’t go away. Take trade. NAFTA isn’t going to disappear, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a similar deal with Europe could end up on the agenda. Republicans have turned sharply against free trade agreements, and having a President Hillary Clinton back them, even in revamped form, will inflame the opposition. Take immigration. It’s been falling as a result of the Great Recession. There’s no reason it can’t pick back up in the coming years. And we know how Trumpists feel about immigrants.
Think about how Pence—or some version of him—could connect his personal history with a Trump-like set of issues to grind down the sharper edges of what he’s pitching into something you’d discuss with your grandmother. He’s from Indiana, has been married to the same woman for 31 years, has 3 children, and did you know his grandfather was an Irish immigrant who settled in Chicago? Pence has brought up this history to straddle the urban-rural divide that’s vexed American politics for 100 years: “My story is I was born and raised by two big-city kids down in a really small town in Southern Indiana.”
There must be political consultants who are already plotting how to sell Trumpist policy through the right person. Pence might not build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, but he might promise to quadruple the number of border patrol agents, and repeat over and over that he’ll oppose that bogeyman of Republican politics, the path to citizenship. Here’s the soundbite: “I love immigrants, ones like my grandfather who came here legally, settled in Chicago and got his piece of the American dream.”
Erasing the temptation of Trumpism will demand everything the Republican leadership has failed to demonstrate: a willingness to challenge the party base, a recognition that the White House is lost for the foreseeable future, and an openness to policies that address middle-class economic angst. Democratic control of the White House and one or both chambers of Congress will only increase the allure of a Trump-like profile that lauds middle-class entitlements like Social Security while demonizing all things foreign.
A Pence candidacy in 2020 would have to grapple with how to bring the Republican donor class on board while emphasizing the populist economic issues Trump has pitched. But that elite set, which likes cheap immigrant labor and free trade deals, isn’t the influence it once was. It’s shot through with billionaires who can, thanks to the Supreme Court, give unlimited amounts. Merge a clutch of them with a strong online fundraising apparatus and the next Republican nominee could probably pay campaign costs.
The Republican nominee would arrive at the convention with enough party unity to persuade holdouts to back him. Establishment elites would whisper privately that they’ve harnessed the candidate and his supporters to their agenda—“We have hired him.”—or that they can block what they don’t like in Congress. The candidate would assure his mass base, publicly, that he’s broken the establishment into their populist saddle.
Dear reader, you may personally find these political contortions absurd. But this election season, the absurd turned plausible before it became reality. And Trump’s political successor doesn’t even need to like the tangerine terror from New York. He need only absorb the lessons of what Trump won and how he lost. Republicans are at an extremely fluid moment in their 162-year history, and there’s no reason this story has to end well.