January 18, 2021

Will the spectre of Trump 2024 haunt American politics after he leaves the White House this week? Arguably not, even if the Senate vote to impeach the outgoing President, which would prevent him from running again, falls short of the required two-thirds majority. But Trumpism — a set of beliefs defined by hostility to politically correct elites, support for border control and cultural nationalism — is likely to persist. There will be no going back to the Reagan and Bush years, a Republicanism defined by tax cuts, family values and missionary militarism.

For the pro-Trump rioters who ransacked the Capitol this month, the bogus claim that the election was stolen remains at the heart of their belief system. But surely this isn’t the majority view among the 76 million Trump voters? Actually, it appears it is. Republican voters really believe their man won. Take, for example, a recent Data for Progress poll which offered respondents three choices: “I trust the election results and believe Biden should be inaugurated”, “I have some doubts about the election results, but believe Biden should be inaugurated”, and “I don’t believe Biden should be inaugurated”.

Of the 463 Republicans sampled, only 16% said Biden won cleanly, while 29% claimed he won despite some irregularities. Meanwhile, 49% replied that Biden should not be inaugurated. If we screen out the 6% who said that they didn’t know, this means that over half of Republicans think the election was stolen.

When I conducted my own poll of almost 400 Trump supporters two days after the Capitol was stormed – using Prolific, an online survey platform – the results were much the same. I asked “Which statement comes closest to your view of what happened in the 2020 election?”. The answers, with emphasis added, were as follows:

  • Trump lost to Biden fair and square: [17%]
  • Trump almost certainly lost to Biden, but it would have been closer without rule violations that helped Biden: [13%]
  • Trump probably lost to Biden, but it would have been closer without rule violations that helped Biden: [19%]
  • Trump would have got more votes than Biden without the rule violations that helped Biden: [51%]

Even with my attempts to tease out a nuanced response, a majority of Trump voters echoed Trump’s conspiracy theory that the election was fraudulent. And surely it is a conspiracy theory. While none of us was there to count each ballot, I trust the US legal system, electoral process and the social science of election fraud more than hearsay. The same, however, cannot be said for Trump’s supporters, whose trust in the electoral process appears to have frayed. It’s a result, I suspect, of the wider social disconnect between voters and elites that both Michael Lind and Robert Putnam link to the demise of mass-membership associations such as unions and churches. They used to give people a rooted social connection to national political institutions, a phenomenon which since the 1960s has faded.

Does this mean that Trump supporters are putty in his hands, devoted to a cult figure? Not necessarily. If they were, they would enthusiastically support him running for president in 2024. It would be a chance for their stabbed-in-the-back leader to redeem himself. But when I asked my Trump-voting sample, “What is your preferred vision for the Republican Party’s future?”, they were decidedly cool on Trump when compared to a hypothetical Trumpist politician with more respect for liberal democracy:

  • Donald Trump runs again in 2024: [29%]
  • A candidate who is more presidential, respectful and gets things done, while adopting Trump’s views on controlling immigration, nationalism and being willing to challenge the mainstream media, political correctness and elites: [55%]
  • A candidate who is more presidential, respectful and gets things done, and avoids Trump’s views to focus on older Republican arguments like limited government, free markets, the family and resisting tyranny in the world: [16%]

All of which suggests that there is certainly room for a Republican candidate who can articulate the so-called “left-conservative” populist views espoused by anti-Trump intellectuals such as Andrew Sullivan and David Frum. Meanwhile, support for a candidate espousing the post-Reagan “fusionist” Republicanism of tax cuts, family values and promoting democracy garnered a paltry 16%.

And so the hope for a return to the ideological status quo in American politics appears a vain one. As the below table — which compares the results of my two questions — reveals, even among those who accept that Biden won fair and square, a respectable Trumpist candidate beats the fusionist conservative 53-35. On the other side, moreover, even the die-hards who say that Trump won narrowly prefer a Trumpist over the man himself. In fact, the Trumpist always comes out on top.

Source: Prolific, January 8, 2020. N=393.

What this shows is that while a cultish devotion to Trump’s charismatic authority is important, it is secondary to the mainly cultural grievances — such as the policing of speech — which provided his 2016 election with an impetus. A skillful politician who fights back intelligently but unapologetically on these issues, while respecting democracy and procedural liberalism, has a serious chance of emerging as the next Republican presidential candidate. And though Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton will no doubt be leading figures jockeying for that mantle, we shouldn’t neglect the possibility that an outsider may ride into town once again.