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Opinion
Timothy L. O'Brien

Trumpism Is a Dish Republicans Can Serve Without Trump

Even if the former president leaves the political stage, the noxious forces he amplified aren’t going away.

It doesn’t need Trump to continue.

It doesn’t need Trump to continue.

Photographer: Joshua A. Bickel/Bloomberg

Donald Trump has used the midterm elections to spin the media (will he or won’t he announce a presidential bid?) and to position himself as a power broker — the ultimate arbiter of Trumpism and its proper standard-bearers.

Trump being Trump, he feared supporting losing candidates, and he spun accordingly. “I think if they win, I should get all the credit,” he told one interviewer recently. “If they lose, I should not be blamed at all.” He grinned as he said that, noted that he had backed “very good candidates” and then qualified his comments: “When they do well, I won’t be given any credit, and if they do badly, they will blame everything on me.”

Lo and behold, Trump’s candidates — especially the most cartoonish ones — didn’t do well on Election Day. An early lesson is that Trump hung like an albatross from the necks of super-MAGA contestants, and that may have also suppressed electoral momentum the Republican Party as a whole might have enjoyed otherwise. Even stalwarts blamed Trump for that. Fox News ran a headline noting that some considered him the “biggest loser” in the race.

One Fox commentator, Marc Thiessen, called the “radical” GOP candidates who bungled the midterms a “searing indictment of the Republican Party.” Instead, he advised, the party should turn to other Republicans who performed well, like Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. “This is the path to the future,” he pointed out. And therein lies a tale.

DeSantis may indeed be the best bet now for Republicans who want to take back the White House in 2024. He has thoroughly dismantled the Obama coalition that once helped turn Florida into a swing state, and he is a far less shambolic and unhinged actor than Trump. He’s a formidable politician, and if his myriad quirks don’t undermine him on the campaign trail, he will be a formidable national candidate as well. But he is hardly less radical than the candidates Thiessen fretted over. DeSantis is a vessel for Trumpism detached from the absurdist performance art of Trump himself.

This played out in state races a year ago, too. Glenn Youngkin, a Trumpista in sheep’s clothing, took the statehouse in Virginia, and Jack Ciattarelli, a Trumpista in wolf’s clothing, made a surprisingly strong though unsuccessful run for governor in New Jersey. Many voters still appreciate Trumpism even if it’s fully divorced from its author.

I define Trumpism the same way the former president himself did when he burst onto the national political stage more than seven years ago:  a backlash against institutions and elites wedded to coldblooded, us-versus-them identity politics (and often peddled through bigotry and racism). Trump was an outcome of the American political process and identity, of course, and not an aberration. He and his presidency shredded several myths that Americans had embraced about the country’s core values and institutions and unspooled the notion that US democracy was both sacrosanct and inevitable.

Trump was also tragicomically inept, attracted to multiple versions of corruption and so enamored of vaudevillian buffoonery that he undermined portions of his party’s agenda and failed to secure a second tour in the White House. The Covid-19 pandemic also left Trump off balance, and had  the virus not ravaged the US in 2020, he might have been able to eke out an electoral victory that year. Still, he offered his party lessons about effectively securing a path to power that was free from a deeply articulated political platform or sophisticated public policies. He grabbed power by simply playing upon many of his supporters’ fears and worst instincts while offering elites and others in the GOP who knew better a hefty share of the political and financial pie for going along with him. And when he lost the 2020 election, he gave his party another masterclass: Refuse to concede, foment a coup and undermine public trust in the electoral process — all in the service of preserving a stranglehold on power.

None of this is going away even if Trump himself does. The GOP is scrambling to undermine electoral outcomes at the state level because Trump showed them that it was not only possible to win that way but that a big chunk of Republican voters was also fine with that. While the GOP didn’t enjoy the landslide victory in the midterms that they had hoped for, scores of Republicans who openly denied the results of the 2020 race won their elections.

Trump is also not one to go gently into that good night. A presidential run will feed his need to stay in the media spotlight and allow him to raise money off his candidacy. He also believes that the presidency might insulate him from the swarm of state and federal investigations he is mired in. Those are all ample reasons for him to stick around.

He also will never take responsibility for the midterm debacle. He is reportedly trashing one MAGA-teer, Mehmet Oz, for losing the Senate race in Pennsylvania. He is also said to be “livid” and “screaming at everyone” because his handpicked candidates mostly belly-flopped. Someone made of different stuff would take responsibility for these outcomes, do a little round of introspection and move on. That isn’t Trump, though.

A different kind of a person would also feel reassured that even if he can’t continue to carry the torch, his legacy — and authoritarian leanings — are alive and well in politicians such as DeSantis. But even if Trump can’t bring himself to recognize that, the nation’s voters can. And they should bear that in mind because a fuller reckoning around the future of democracy and Trumpism still awaits.