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Feature 01.20.2023 13 minutes

Make Republicans Electable Again

Donald Trump Addresses The Press On New Years Eve At Mar-A-Lago Mansion

Donald Trump, the GOP, and 2024.

George Wallace, the Alabama governor who had been the face of segregationist resistance to the civil rights movement, ran for president in 1968 as the American Independent Party nominee. He carried five states, all in the Deep South. Four years later, Wallace chose to assail the two-party system from within by seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Considering that Democrats ultimately nominated George McGovern, Wallace did remarkably well, winning primaries by large margins in Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, but also beyond the Confederacy in Maryland and Michigan. In addition, he had strong second- or third-place showings in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Indiana before an assassination attempt in May 1972 left him partially paralyzed and unable to campaign. Wallace’s slogan, “Send Them a Message,” connected his image as a fighter to his voters’ resentments.

Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Wallace ran again for the Democratic nomination in 1976. This posed a danger for the entire party but especially for another southern governor who was also in the race, Jimmy Carter of Georgia. Carter struck back by running directly at Wallace with the slogan, “Don’t send them a message. Send them a president.” Campaigning on this theme, Carter defeated Wallace in the Florida primary, 34% to 31%. Two weeks later he won a crushing victory in North Carolina, getting 54% of the vote to Wallace’s 35%. These defeats, E.J. Dionne wrote in Why Americans Hate Politics (2004), “ended George Wallace’s presidential ambitions.”

“Politics ain’t beanbag,” journalist Finley Peter Dunne declared in 1895. Neither is it a form of therapy or a vehicle for affirming group solidarity. Republicans pondering what to do in 2024 must engage the question Democrats faced 48 years earlier: Do we want to make a statement or to win an election? Is the point to air grievances and manifest defiance against the woke Democratic Party and its academic, journalistic, and corporate auxiliaries? Or is the objective to achieve the virtuous circle of partisan politics: win elections, thereby acquiring power, which is used to enact sound policies, ones whose beneficial effects increase the likelihood of winning future elections?

These loaded questions have a loaded answer: There is no sound or even sane risk/reward assessment that culminates in choosing Donald Trump to be the 2024 GOP presidential nominee. Seven years ago, some who were dubious about Trump’s competence and character (myself included) declared that they were “anti-anti-Trump”: that Trump had a growing following despite his obvious flaws made clear that both parties had failed to address problems with which citizens were deeply and legitimately concerned. Perhaps a figure from the world of business, including show business, could achieve successes that had eluded career politicians. Perhaps only a figure from outside the governing class could do so.

Even such qualified hopes are no longer tenable. We know too much in 2023 to think that Trump will be a better politician in the future than he has shown himself to be in the past. To begin with, we know too much about Trump as a Republican presidential nominee to be confident that he’ll prevail against Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, or some other Democrat in 2024. Given that Trump won 46.1% of the popular vote in 2016 and 46.8% in 2020, we have every reason to believe that his ceiling is on the wrong side of 50%. This is a problem. In 2016, many things had to go just right for Trump to translate his second-place finish into an Electoral College majority, starting with third-party candidates winning 5.7% of the vote and Hillary Clinton’s singular shortcomings as a politician. To predicate another presidential nomination on such favorable conditions falling into place once more is to invite defeat.

There’s little reason to think that Trump can crack this ceiling and improve upon the results he got in 2016 and 2020. Not since Richard Nixon has an American politician won a presidential nomination and lost the general election (in 1960), then come back (eight years later in Nixon’s case) to win a subsequent nomination and election. (After losing the 1968 election, Hubert Humphrey unsuccessfully ran for the 1972 Democratic nomination. Leaving aside George McGovern’s campaign for the 1984 Democratic nomination—brief, gestural, and barely funded or noticed—Humphrey was the most recent defeated major-party nominee to seek the presidency again prior to Trump declaring his candidacy in November 2022.) Nixon prevailed in 1968 by, among other things, offering himself as the “New Nixon,” more mature, statesmanlike, and conciliatory than the aggressive partisan of the 1940s and ’50s. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the most recent Republican president is either interested in or capable of running in 2024 as the New Trump. Now 76, a public figure for much longer than he has been a political one, Donald Trump is extremely unlikely to introduce a revised persona for the purpose of making himself acceptable to a wider range of the electorate.

It’s just as well that he doesn’t try any such makeover, as one can hardly conceive of a more futile project. Since announcing his candidacy in 2015, Trump has been the nation’s dominant political story: the most discussed person in public life and the most polarizing. At this point, the number of voters who feel they still don’t know enough about him to form an opinion would barely fill a high-school auditorium. Within the 53% of the electorate that has voted against him twice, the subset that is amenable to being won over in a third contest must be even smaller.

In 2016, Trump won 48% of independent voters against Hillary Clinton’s 42%, according to exit polls. Four years later, he lost among independents by 54% to 41%. A Quinnipiac University poll released in December 2022 showed that, among registered voters, those who identify as independents now disapprove of Trump by a margin of 62% to 25%. Since only 3% of registered Democrats approve of him, not even unanimous support by Republican voters would make him competitive in a general election. (And, in fact, 20% of Republican voters also have an unfavorable opinion of Trump.) The Real Clear Politics average of nine public opinion polls taken between early November and mid-December 2022 found that 36.8% of registered voters have a favorable opinion of Trump compared to 57.1% with an unfavorable view—a net rating of minus 19.3%. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are unpopular, too, but less so. Biden’s favorable/unfavorable average is 43.7% to 51.6% (a net of minus 7.9%); for Harris it’s 36.3% to 51.8% (minus 15.5%).

The Dog That Caught the Car

Of course, in 2016 Trump defied the polls, the odds, and the experts. However small his chances to win in 2024, they are greater than zero. The case for nominating Trump, despite the probability that he would lose in the general election, is that a second Trump term’s benefits to the nation and the Republican Party are so great that they justify betting everything on a long shot.

We also, however, know too much about Trump as a president to believe this argument. The best thing to be said about Donald Trump’s political career is that he catalyzed a long-overdue reformulation of the GOP’s purpose and priorities. The quarter-century prior to the 2016 election saw the end of the Cold War and the beginning of Republicans’ inability to explain themselves. It is impossible to say now, as it was when they were stumbling toward defeat, what the presidential campaigns of Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012 were about. George Bush, father and son, won elections and served conscientiously but cannot be judged to have succeeded in office. Some of their commitments (kinder and gentler, compassionate conservatism) were slogans that never yielded agendas. Others were all too specific, such as George W. Bush’s promise to “support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” a goal as audacious as it was oblivious to America’s modest capacity to democratize the globe and other nations’ furious resistance to such enlightenment.

Trump’s victories in 2016 were made possible by the weakness, intellectual and political, of the Republican argument as it had been expressed since Ronald Reagan left the White House in 1989. Though far from being a systematic thinker, Trump put forward the raw materials of a Republican governing philosophy notably different from what had gone before. Its unifying theme was a nationalism that was unapologetic and vigorous, but also circumspect. As Christopher DeMuth recently argued, the goal is “to conserve the American nation,” a mission that encompasses serious policies on immigration, seriously enforced; reshoring critical industries; and calibrating America’s military and diplomatic activity to America’s national interests.

The problem is that Donald Trump contributed much more to the development and clarification of these purposes before his January 2017 inauguration than he did after it. Though his four years in office were both successful and distinctive, the parts that were successful were not distinctive, and the parts that were distinctive were not successful. Trump’s considerable achievements as president—appointing originalists to the federal judiciary, including three to the Supreme Court; reducing and simplifying federal taxes; stalwart support for Israel and opposition to Iran that led to an Arab-Israeli rapprochement—were those of a generic Republican president, the sort of policies President Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio would have pursued.

Against these accomplishments is a presidential record of turbulence, and the use of insult-comedy schtick to gratuitously offend political figures whose votes or support might have proven crucial. An unusually large number of people left the Trump Administration—Exhibit A: four chiefs of staff in four years—but few did so on good terms. Trump publicly denounced appointees who displeased him, such as Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr or National Security Advisor John Bolton, often in language that made it impossible to understand why he had appointed them in the first place.

This Attention Deficit Disorder-approach to governance had policy consequences as well as political ones. Trump’s signature campaign promise had been to reduce illegal immigration by building a wall at America’s southern border. Yet he did not make it a priority during his first two years in office when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. As Ramesh Ponnuru recently recounted in National Review, “When Democrats, at a moment of political weakness, said they would agree to fund the wall, Trump raised a new demand, a reduction in legal immigration, that didn’t have much support in either party.” Having squandered his best opportunity for a legislative victory on border security, Trump declared a national emergency after Republicans lost their House majority in the 2018 midterm elections, claiming it gave him the power as president to spend money unilaterally for the wall. The move resulted in much litigation but little construction. “The same month he declared the emergency,” Ponnuru continued, “Trump endorsed increasing legal immigration to a record level. A few months later, he would tell two reporters that he never really favored cutting legal immigration in the first place” (emphasis added).

Old Wounds

Having not grown in office, Trump has kept on not growing as he concludes his second year out of it. His reelection effort to date reveals a politician who, like a Bourbon monarch, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The raison d’être of his present campaign is, of course, to avenge the 2020 election victory that he alleges was stolen from him. “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude,” Trump wrote in December on his social media site, Truth Social, “allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution. Our great ‘Founders’ did not want, and would not condone, False & Fraudulent Elections!

About this constantly repeated claim, we know not too much but too little. “We’ve got lots of theories,” the shockingly diminished Rudy Giuliani told Arizona Republican leaders after the 2020 election. “We just don’t have the evidence.” A good reason for this lack of evidence is that rigorous empirical assessments undermine the stolen election claim. One week after Election Day 2020, the Washington Post’s Henry Olsen pointed out that voter turnout was up sharply in 2020 compared to 2016. (In the end, the number of ballots cast increased by 15.9%.) But neither turnout nor Democratic margins of victory increased disproportionately in battleground states’ big cities, the most heavily Democratic areas, which would have been telltale evidence of fraud. The crucial difference between 2016 and 2020, Olsen says, was that Trump did worse among suburban voters the second time around, either winning by smaller margins or losing by larger ones. But this was true to the same degree in deep blue and red states’ suburbs, where vote fraud would have been pointless, as it was in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—states Trump narrowly won against Clinton, then narrowly lost against Biden. Unless Trump produces specific evidence of fraud at a level sufficient to have reversed the outcome in several close states, Olsen concluded, Biden’s victory was what it appeared to be. Twenty-six months later, the evidence he called for remains conspicuous by its absence.

There’s a logical problem as well: the circumstantial case that Democrats had the means, motive, and opportunity to steal the 2020 election does not explain why they stole only the presidential election. “Biden won, and that’s great,” one Democratic strategist said after the election, “but everything underneath Biden was a huge catastrophe.” Democrats lost seats in the House when they anticipated gains, while losing Senate races they expected to win in Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina. But for Trump’s counterproductive intervention in the January 2021 runoff elections for two Georgia Senate seats, Joe Biden would have begun his presidency facing a Senate with a narrow Republican majority, greatly constraining his ability both to legislate and to make executive and judicial branch appointments. Democrats also failed to win control of several state legislative chambers that they considered within reach, a critical objective in the election prior to nationwide redistricting. The theory that Trump’s 2020 victory was stolen requires the belief that Democratic thieves that year were inexplicably selective, indulgent, or inept. Perhaps the anomaly can be explained, but those who advance the stolen election claims have yet to account for or even acknowledge it.

The Point Is to Win

To explain the purchase the vaporous stolen-election argument has on a sizable portion of the electorate, one must view it in the context of attacks on Trump going back to 2015. Historian Victor Davis Hanson, author of The Case for Trump(2019), points out that Foreign Policy magazine ran a web article by Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor and Obama Administration alumna, calling for Trump to be impeached, removed by the 25th Amendment, or neutralized through a military coup. It appeared the second week after his 2017 inauguration. This, Hanson argues, is representative of the Establishment’s by-any-means-necessary jihad against the crude, threatening populist interloper. The “Resistance” was unrelenting throughout Trump’s presidency, neither pausing nor apologizing after one of its central articles of faith, Trump’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign, was rendered untenable by the investigation headed by former FBI director Robert Mueller.

The Resistance strengthened Trump’s bond with his voters by giving them a shared grievance: he had won the 2016 nomination and election after playing by the rules; they had voted for him in the good-faith expectation that their duly elected candidate would enjoy the same powers and authority under the Constitution as did his duly elected predecessors; but Washington’s permanent government set out from Day One to override voters’ judgment with its own. The belief that the Establishment stole a second term from Trump and his voters is of a piece with the belief that it worked, unremittingly and with considerable success, to steal his first term. Trump’s most committed followers ended up more aggrieved after the 2020 election than they had been before the 2016 one. The resulting determination to treat 2024 as a last chance to send a message that rebukes these tormentors, his and theirs, is a powerful one.

Two things can be true, however: that Trump was unfairly maligned and thwarted; and that he made the worst of a bad situation. Hanson writes that, “obsessed with the historic injustice of it all,” Trump “stooped to battle nonstop with minor and irrelevant enemies—and often his own allies.” He goes so far as to compare Trump to Captain Queeg, the central figure of Herman Wouk’s novel, The Caine Mutiny(1951). Queeg really was unfit for command—“neurotic, flawed,” and “paranoid” in Hanson’s summary—but the “NeverQueegers” who mutinied against him also proved to be “self-righteous” “nihilists.”

There are no heroes in The Caine Mutiny, but there is a last page that ends the fictional story. In the real world of American politics, by contrast, there is always a next election and another after that. A political party that wants to prevail or even survive must treat these contests seriously, putting forward its most promising rather than its most victimized candidates. “Life is unfair,” John Kennedy said in 1962. “There is always inequity.” Even if one stipulates that the transgressions Trump committed were less serious than the ones he suffered, the Republican Party exists to win elections and govern wisely, not to validate and nurture grievances. Its ultimate objective of principled victory cannot be reconciled with nominating Donald Trump for president in 2024.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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