The real loser this week? To many Americans it’s obvious. Not “democracy itself” — at least, not yet. And not, really, the Democrats who have a good deal of support and may well win the presidency.
Nope. The loser is Jeb Bush.
It’s him and his country club set. All those genial folks at home in board rooms and hunting lodges, sniffy about the public finances, untroubled by trans rights, unflustered by abortion. They have copped it big time.
All those Republicans did one of two things in this election; either they voted for Trump, hoping the party might gently ease its way out of his clutches in years to come, or they did not vote at all and prayed for a repudiation that might allow them to recapture the bucking bronco.
The bronco has bolted, with Donald Trump atop. Even if Joe Biden wins, the lesson many Republicans are going to take from this is that the way to keep the Democrats out of power in the future is to super-serve those at the bottom of the pile. The rougher, courser brigade. Those working the tables at the country club.
Because win or lose, Donald Trump wins. Not necessarily a second term in office, but the party – Lincoln’s party – is now his in an important and longer lasting sense. It has been shown a path that works. It’s a path to victory, or near victory, ploughed with the vigorous anti-intellectualism of the Trump brand. As some wag said as the ballots for Trump were piling up, “people voted with their middle finger”.
To be sure that is not an entire programme for government. The middle finger vote does not sort out America’s chaotic and vastly expensive healthcare system. It does not do much to combat climate change. All manner of complex problems which demand complex and nuanced approaches go rather by the wayside. I am old enough to remember when George W Bush was accused of waging a “war against science” – well the middle finger voter is no Einstein.
But he (yes, the middle finger often belongs to a he) knows what he likes. He wants big business reigned in. He wants immigration kept low and illegal immigration vigorously suppressed. He wants no more foreign wars and a supply chain that goes no further west than California, and preferably no further than Texas. He couldn’t give a monkey’s about the national debt and is comfortable with government spending on pensions and benefits for the working class.
As Erick Erickson, one of the leading lights of the evangelical Trump supporting right, told the New Yorker in the days before the election: “The Party today is more populist than conservative… and it’s the populism of a growing percentage of Americans who feel shut out. It’s younger, blue-collar voters—a coalition of grievance. They’re not conservative or liberal. They have grievances against the élite.”
There are dangers in all of this. When you say goodbye to Jeb Bush, you run the risk of saying hello to all manner of newbies who might make you wish you were back at the golf course.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance.
She won a Georgia seat for the Republicans in the House of Representatives. She’s an open supporter of QAnon, the conspiracy theory campaign which believes that a secret cabal of Satanic cannibalistic paedophiles controls American government. Goodness knows what she will make of Washington DC. And while there are always some oddballs returned from both parties, this feels like something different from the Mr Smith goes to Washington distrust of the old ways of doing things. To many Americans, this politics has a nasty, unpleasant edge. And it is a place from which the Republicans, even in a divided age, cannot win regular majorities with regular folk.
But to concentrate on the extremes post-Trump would be a mistake. There is a more subtle side of Republicanism that recognises the Trump victory over the old guard and seeks to build something with firmer foundations and more coherence than the Donald can manage.
Among those doing this work is a former domestic policy director in Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid named Oren Cass. He is no fan of Mr Trump personally, but the work he is doing at his think tank American Compass may well form the beginnings of the post-Trump party, a party that does not repudiate the President but builds on his achievement.
Cass recently described to Ezra Klein how the Trump impact on the party could be seen in a positive light:
“I think there’s a fascinating dynamic on the right-of-center right now where if you look within institutions — if you look at individuals working the various think tanks in media and in agencies and congressional offices — there’s just a ton of fascinating people doing fascinating work: rethinking first principles, challenging orthodoxies. It’s really exciting. Some of that is just a result of Trump sort of wiping the table clean and there being a sense that anything goes.”
The post-Trump future, according to Cass, allows the party to escape from the low-tax low-spending gloom that, in his view, did so much to damage the nation, and to propose, instead, a new economic agenda. As Klein put it, this is “a vision that puts families first, eschews economic growth as the be-all-end-all of policymaking, and recognizes the inescapability of government intervention in the economy”.
The issue for the party is whether the 2024 Republican primary (oh yes, it’s never too early to plan for the next US election) is going to be a re-run of 2016, but as though Donald Trump had never been there. Just get the same characters – or younger family members – onto the stage and thank the Lord Mr Trump is absent.
This is definitely a scenario that some have hankered after; there are even some who believe that such a thing could still come to pass. But the events of this week, the ability of Donald Trump to get people to vote, the holding on to the Senate (if that comes to pass) surely make this view of the Republican future less tenable, less attractive to those who want to win.
Much more likely is the cementing of GOP in a new foundation – never mind the corporate class and the corner office. Hello, instead, to small business owners, to electricians and plumbers, to people who draw salaries. This party emphasises employment – but, more important, it focuses on the dignity of work.
In that place, steering clear of the conspiracy theorists of the far-right and gradually embracing a view of America that appeals to hard workers of all ethnic backgrounds, there is electoral success aplenty for the Republicans in the future. This is what plenty of post-Trump thinkers believe.
The future of the party is not going to be dominated by the man himself, but he has made his mark. Donald Trump captured a party. It struggled a bit to get away from him. The struggle now has finished. The argument now is about building on Trumpism, not repudiating it.