It’s only July; polls are not predictive; events will intervene between now and Election Day. And yet, conservatives who try to salve their nagging anxiety over Donald Trump’s precarious political position with these palliative stipulations are doing themselves a disservice. The conditions the GOP is facing are unenviable, and conservatives cannot put off preparing for the worst forever.
First, the polls. They are brutal, and not just for the president but for his party, too. Writing for the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball, the author and analyst Kyle Kondik does not sugarcoat the president’s predicament. The president’s average job approval rating has spent the last six weeks in double-digit negative territory. Joe Biden maintains healthy and stable leads in states like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Even safe Republican states like Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, South Carolina, and Montana are moving in Biden’s direction. Democrats are unlikely to take those states in November, but more vulnerable must-wins like Texas, Georgia, and Ohio are now in play. If the election were held today, Trump likely would lose badly.
The bad news for the GOP doesn’t end there. Democrats are now all but expected to win at least two new seats in the U.S. Senate, offset by just one likely Republican gain in Alabama. Seats occupied by Sens. Susan Collins in Maine and Thom Tillis in North Carolina are up for grabs, imperiling the Republican majority. The party must spread its resources thin to defend those seats as well as some unexpectedly vulnerable incumbents in Montana, Iowa, and Georgia. On the state level, Republicans are defending more state legislatures and governorships than their Democratic counterparts ahead of the crucial decennial cycle of reapportionment and redistricting. If the top of the GOP ticket (Trump) goes down to defeat by the margins he currently trails Biden, the scale of the damage Republicans will endure farther down the ballot could last a decade.
If Trump does lose, there will be no avoiding a reckoning with the conditions that led the GOP to sacrifice most of the gains they made during eight years of Barack Obama administration over just four years of Trump. Republicans will, however, do their best to avoid casting too much specific blame. This won’t be an effort to shield Trump from deserved criticism—their public expressions of frustration with the president’s governance may, in fact, begin to approximate the condemnations they express privately. But if history is any guide, one-term presidents do not escape their party’s censure no matter the conditions that led to their defenestration from the Oval Office.
Jimmy Carter governed during a period of pronounced inflation, an energy crisis, a recession, and a series of foreign crises that directly threatened American security and imperiled U.S. interests. These factors were exogenous, but Carter’s legacy was not spared. By 1980, he faced a revolt from within his own party. When the Democrats returned to the White House in 1992, the party had transformed itself into a vehicle for centrism—not progressive idealism—led by a man with a documented personal animus toward his Democratic predecessor.
There were few indications that George H. W. Bush would not secure a second term in office by late 1990, on the eve of the Gulf War and at a time when the president’s job approval rating remained well into positive territory. But that was precisely when he, too, endured a political revolt from within his party’s ranks over a budget deal. That insurrection, justified by Newt Gingrich as a necessary effort to prevent the president from collaborating with Democrats, hobbled Bush, highlighted the abandonment of his “no new taxes” pledge, and, in retrospect, paved the way for a more combative conservatism that would dominate the Republican coalition for the better part of two decades.
If Donald Trump is similarly repudiated by voters, the causes will be myriad. But perhaps foremost among them will be the president’s all-consuming personality and the personalization of the office he holds.
It was that personalization—the president’s obsession with his image—that obliged his former secretary of defense, Navy secretary, chief of staff, homeland security advisor, and two national security advisors to denounce him in the harshest of terms. It led Trump to surround himself early on with semi-competent and disloyal advisors, whose chief qualifications for the offices they held were the degree to which they flattered the president’s ego. It ensured that Trump’s relationship with his congressional Republican allies remained tense through most of his presidency, and it guaranteed that retiring Republican officeholders rarely spared the president their scorn.
It was the personalization of the presidency that compelled Trump to dedicate his office to the pursuit of a conspiracy theory, which held that it was, in fact, the Democratic Party that had conspired with an Eastern European power, dangling congressionally appropriated security assistance in the process—conduct that led him to become only the third president in history to be impeached. And, ultimately, it was the president’s inability to endure even the most modest slight that contributed to a chaotic and uninspiring response to a global pandemic. That impulse led Trump to devote his public appearances to attacking news organizations accurately relating the scale of the outbreak, plaster his name on federal relief checks, and even wage a campaign to discredit a prominent member of the White House’s COVID response team whose profile has eclipsed his own.
If there is a post-Trump moment for the Republican Party in 2021, it will be one in which the GOP dedicates most of its energies toward presenting a united front against a Democrat-led Washington. But it will not be without its reckonings. Well before the president’s fortunes began to wane, the Republican coalition was already buffeted by the kind of fractiousness that indicated a leadership deficit. Within the right, a schismatic struggle to define conservatism’s first principles has raged for nearly a year. Columnists and commentators have exercised a veto over the party’s elected leadership when setting the agenda. And even Trump’s prospective successors have subtly but detectably sought to guide the conservative movement’s young activists away from the Trumpian affectation that now threatens to scuttle his presidency.
Surely, there have been premature efforts to wrestle with what a post-Trump moment will mean for the GOP (present company included). But the presidency does seem to be slipping through Donald Trump’s fingers, and political power does not lie fallow for long. The post-Trump era could begin sooner than many expect, and it would serve Republicans to prepare accordingly.