The business wing of the Republican Party was forced to go really far afield under Donald Trump’s watch. Moreover, when it involved the very foundation of democracy, matters became too much. Therefore, one can say this: Republicans have to win the battle to expel Donald Trump and the Trumpists from the party for good. If they are to stay in a party that is Trump’s party rather than the historical Republican Party, it will be very difficult for them to look in the mirror.
On Jan. 6, the U.S. Capitol in Washington was attacked and looted. The attackers threatened to kill select members of Congress and hang Vice President Mike Pence. The riots were not spontaneous, and the timing was not random. The intruders were there at Trump’s urging, and they were there to prevent Congress from carrying out the duty that the Constitution imposes on it, namely to certify a democratic election and a peaceful transfer of power.
Before the onslaught on Congress, the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was among those who incited his father’s supporters. “This isn’t their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party,” he said. Was he right? Has a personality cult taken over one of America’s two major parties, and if so, where does that place American democracy in the coming years?
We asked researcher in American studies and history Niels Bjerre-Poulsen these and other questions. As part of RÆSON’s new interview series, “Guest at RÆSON,” he dives into the crisis the Republican Party is currently experiencing.
REASON: Do you want to start by outlining what type of party the Republican Party was in the decade leading up to Trump’s rise to power?
NIELS BJERRE-POULSEN: I would rather go even further back and say this: Since its founding in the 1850s, the Republican Party has had many different viewpoints. First, it supported free market labor unlike the Democrats, who had adopted a pro-slavery platform. From the 1880s onward, it then became primarily a pro-business party. From time to time, conflicts over its foreign policy divided the Republican Party internally. At other times, the main issue that divided the blocs was the role of the federal government and how far it was prepared to extend its involvement.
In the early 1960s, and among conservatives, the idea of a “me, too” Republican emerged, which was someone who wanted almost the same thing as the Democrats. On the opposing side, you would find the “real” conservatives. In the 1990s, the conservatives called the moderate Republicans “RINOs,” which meant “Republicans in name only.” Often, what divided the party has been a matter of the degree to which one would acknowledge that the federal government had an important role to play in the economy, for example, in building infrastructure or imposing tariff barriers. Now we face a situation where the divisiveness has to do with something completely different: whether you are for or against Trump.
It is also worth noting that in looking back at the ‘60s, a very common complaint in American politics was that the two parties were too similar. Back then, regional factors could easily determine whether you were a Republican or a Democrat. You could be 100% conservative, but if you lived in the South, you were a Democrat. This all built on the belief that Abraham Lincoln’s party, which was in essence the Republican Party, conquered and forced the Southern states back into the Union.
If you were a Republican and lived in the Midwest, then you were a true conservative and believed that the federal government should interfere as little as possible in your life. Conversely, if you were Republican and lived in California or New York, you may even have been progressive. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the two parties exchanged voters, thus forming in principle one conservative and one liberal party. Many conservative Southern Democrats opted to join the Republican Party, and the progressive Republicans became either independent or perhaps Democrats.
The two parties distanced themselves even more from each other, which led to another problem, as they did not have a political system like the Danish do. In essence, the Danish political system is a multiparty system, where parties can form coalitions and implement political agendas. The American system, on the other hand, falls short if two parties are equally influential. Add to this the fact that voters perceive it as betrayal if the parties cooperate across the political spectrum, which is otherwise an integral part of this system. The result is that neither party can pass legislation, and that nothing really happens in D.C. It makes voters angry with Congress, and they describe Washington as a “swamp” where nothing happens.
On top of that, consider the type of party the Republican Party has become. Since it does not go to D.C. to pass legislation, but only to prevent legislation from being passed, you have a recipe for real political deadlock. In some sense, this paves the way for people like Trump, who as an outsider proclaims that he can run America like his business, and can come up with solutions that none of the politicians can. This quickly yields to what we have seen: a cult of personality built around one person as a type of savior, rather than the leader of a political party as political party leaders have traditionally been.
You characterize the divisiveness in the Republican Party as having changed. Previously the divisiveness dealt with the issue of how critical one should be of the federal government, and now it deals with the question of whether you are for or against Trump. Has underlying Republican Party policy or party ideology, if you prefer, not changed?
The question is to what extent we can actually talk about an ideology. For the first time, the Republican Party chose not to adopt a convention party platform for 2020, and this said a great deal. Instead, it simply chose to endorse Trump.
In 2016, Trump gave essentially everyone in the party what they wanted; by doing this, he became very successful. The business wing wanted lower taxes and lower corporate taxes in particular, and the conservatives wanted judges who would shoot down any progressive legislation that might slip through Congress. They got all this. The evangelical Christians got their conservative judges, abortion resistance, etc.
This was possible because at heart, Trump is a nihilist. He has no political program other than perhaps that which is about his own status. He has no deep ideological conviction about which path the United States should follow, nor what direction the Republican Party must take. Therefore, it was no big sacrifice for him to give all camps within the Republican Party what they wanted most.
The business wing of the Republican Party, one might call it, could, for the most part, live with what they did not like, such as weird tweets and perhaps political issues they were decidedly against, such as trade wars, tariff barriers and the exits from the Paris climate agreement, World Health Organization, etc. They could accept all that because they got what they were most interested in: low taxes and deregulation. In that respect, Trump was a skilled tactician. On the other hand, it has now become clear that the United States has ended up in a completely different place than where that bloc of the party wanted the country and party to go. Moreover, in recent months, Trump has brought that conflict out into the open, especially in regard to the attack on American democracy, which I believe his coup attempt was.
Thus, a line has been drawn between those who are primarily Trump supporters on one side, and the business wing or the traditional Republicans on the other side. The first group has quite clearly signaled they are less interested in democratic elections than in keeping Trump in power. Instead of having a division between those who are more or less conservative, we now have a division between people who basically recognize that the pillars of democracy are free elections and a peaceful transfer of power, and on the other hand those who say, “No, we just want Trump.”
Is Trump a symptom of the problem, or has he, in fact, set the problem in motion himself? The Republicans have won three of the last eight elections in the United States, but they have only won the popular vote once. In the context of the American two-party system, what challenge did this historically large party fail to solve?
I think you nailed it. It has to do with the demographic challenge. It is a paramount issue for the entire discussion about whether Trump is a symptom or whether he has also exacerbated the conflict.
Let us start by looking at the exact areas where Trump claims election fraud took place. These are typically areas with large minority representation; the Black voters in Detroit and Black voters in Philadelphia. He does not complain about the suburbs. This is actually ironic; perhaps because he mainly lost the election in the suburbs. However, he asserts that the problem is that the wrong voters were allowed to vote. We have now reached the core of the problem faced by the Republican Party. Demographic changes in the United States have resulted in a situation where white voters represent a shrinking part of the total electorate, at least if you mobilize all the minority voters, as the Democrats managed to do this time.
For decades, the Republican Party has been aware that demographic development was a challenge because the party is predominantly composed of white voters. Some Republicans have said they need to make the tent bigger. One of the ways to achieve this was to draft immigration reform. They did not want to be labeled as a party that stood primarily for white Americans, which was why they had to support this reform.
Several prominent Republicans shared that view, such as John McCain, Lindsay Graham and perhaps Mitt Romney. For reasons we shall not discuss today, Graham ended up as one of Trump’s loyal supporters even though he once advocated making the party more inclusive. The Republicans were well aware they might lose some elections along the way. However, they realized that the situation did not offer a way out unless they could prevent segments of American people from voting. On top of that, they could not tolerate the fact that the only chance they had of winning elections was through the Electoral College process, because they were unable to win the popular vote.
One way to address the demographic challenge was to appeal more broadly to the fastest growing minority group in the United States, Latinos. In particular, this is why in 2000, the Republicans chose George W. Bush as their presidential candidate. He was a governor from Texas who enjoyed relatively strong support from Latino voters. Later on, other candidates were in play, including his brother, Jeb Bush, who served as governor of Florida and could potentially appeal to a fair number of Latino voters.
This strategy provoked a strong reaction from among some of the grassroots elements of the Republican Party, which said it was not fair that illegal immigrants should be rewarded for having entered the country illegally, and even been granted citizenship, and so forth. These Republicans said that if the U.S. started granting citizenship to immigrants in the U.S. illegally, it would accelerate the demographic trend that was already working against them. I think Trump took advantage of this uprising within the Republican Party. This was precisely the reason why, from the beginning, he was particularly keen to claim that Barack Obama was not a legitimate president, asserting that his birth certificate was a forgery.
How do you explain the fact that Republicans ended up with Trump and Trumpism when they realized they had to make the tent bigger?
That was exactly the problem. Leading Republicans did support the first rationale, but then we saw this dramatic reaction from the lower ranks of the party, who said they could not accept this. In that way, Trump was a kind of protest candidate running against the establishment.
After all, during the 2016 primaries, the battlefield was full of Republican candidates. To most people’s surprise, Trump beat out candidates who had plenty of money and support from the entire party, such as Jeb Bush or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Consequently, there was an internal rebellion within the Republican Party.
The fact that Trump actually won made it harder for the party. He showed that he could win despite the demographic changes in American society. He could probably not win the popular vote, and in polls at any point during those four years his approval would not reach 50%, but he could win the presidency.
If only the outcome in certain states had been different, Trump would, in fact, not have been that far from winning reelection. If we look at the total electorate, it certainly was a massive loss. He lost by 7 million votes, but he still got more votes than any previous losing candidate. So, he actually managed to mobilize certain voters who would probably not have voted for the Republican Party had Trump not been the party’s candidate.
Quite cynically right now, one of the big dilemmas faced by future Republican presidential candidates is whether they want to scare away the voters Trump drew out. If they are more afraid of losing those voters than transforming the entire party’s image, it will be difficult for the party. This is the battle – I would almost go so far as to say civil war – that is currently going on within the Republican Party. Against all odds, Trump achieved a great deal in 2016 and 2020, and the question remains whether the party should build upon these achievements.
When you evaluate Trump’s tangible achievements and recall what he promised voters in 2016, he largely failed to deliver on his promises. Nonetheless, a cult-like following of Republican voters has formed around him. Millions of them are convinced that he was an excellent president and did really well. In contrast, let us compare, for example, the way Trump handled the COVID-19 crisis with how it has been handled in other countries. At the executive level, it is painfully apparent that Trump’s presidency was a train wreck.
Yet, we are witnessing not just support but something resembling worship of him as some kind of savior. It is a challenging situation for other aspiring Republican politicians who want to run for president; how do they adopt those voters, or at least avoid making them angry? Recently, this dilemma became evident as the impeachment trial unfolded, because aspiring Republican politicians had a very hard time distancing themselves from him.
After something that strikes me as a flagrant attack on democracy, are you surprised that so many people still back Trump?
This depends on an examination of their motives. What do they hope to get? Do they want to avoid being at odds with Trump supporters? I think that applies to many members of Congress. It is a real threat to them; it is not just an abstract threat about winning voters. Some politicians genuinely fear for their life and limb if they clash with the president. We are talking about politicians who are encouraged to go out and buy safety vests and protection because they receive threats from Trump supporters. And remember, they also receive threats from Republican politicians.
Note, for example, that Trump voters wanted to hang Pence, someone who has been one of the most loyal vice presidents one could ever imagine. Trump got the idea that Pence could determine the outcome of an entire election, and that he could reject the result of a democratic election. Well, Pence had to tell Trump that he did not have such authority. Certifying the vote from 50 states was purely a formality. Yet after this, some people were willing to hang him because he did not do what he had no power to do. The threat is definitely concrete enough, so I think an element of fear is part of the equation.
Of course, some Republican politicians just want Trump’s voters, or at least don’t want to fight with them. They do not want to be the ones to convict the president. The purpose of convicting a president who has left office is not the verdict as such, but rather the fact it would bar Trump from ever running for federal office again. Moreover, some of the politicians who want Trump’s voters fear he will run for president again in four years. Some Republicans most definitely wish this were not possible, but they cannot even agree to make this happen and find him guilty.
Let us build upon what you just said, that the Republicans have adopted a policy in which they hide behind a cult of personality surrounding Trump. At the beginning, we discussed the statement made by Trump’s son that now it was no longer the Republican Party, but Trump’s party. Can we challenge that idea somewhat? A large group of voters wants to vote for Trump, but is there a project which can be undertaken without this Trump person?
This very interesting debate goes on almost daily in the United States; it revolves around the question of whether Trump is such a unique figure that only he can be the leader of such a Trumpist cult. There has been much discussion about whether there is the possibility of a “Trump 2.0,” as in a new political figure who could appeal to the same sentiment among voters, but at the same time, be significantly better qualified than Trump.
Some Trump opponents count themselves as lucky because he was so incompetent and had such a short attention span. Almost none of the projects he talked about were successful, with the only exception of projects that could be completed largely on 24-hours notice, such as pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris climate agreement or the World Health Organization. Anything that could be implemented by executive order.
If we look at specific pieces of legislation, essentially, I can think of only one major success. I am referring to the tax reform adopted in December 2017, which was largely a Republican Party project. When it comes to legislation, this is pretty much the only deal from Trump’s term that will make it into the history books. The fear among Republicans has been that someone might be out there with the same populist magnetism that Trump has, but who also possesses excellent political skill. The question arises whether that fear will have any bearing. The cult is, in fact, one that involves Trump’s personality, and I can hardly imagine that anybody else can replace him, no matter if it is Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley, all of whom hope to be the one to fill the role after Trump.
Moreover, that is, of course, a dilemma. Even with Trump on board, Republicans lost the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and Trump did not win the popular vote in two elections. Although we may be impressed that he got 74 million votes, Biden won 81 million votes, so the vote for Trump is still not enough. If one cannot win either the popular vote or a majority in the Electoral College, the question that comes to mind is whether the Republicans’ approach is effective.
As long as Trump delivered results to the business wing of the party in the form of tax reductions and deregulation, they were ready to ignore everything else. However, after his final actions as president played out during the attack on the very foundation of American democracy, one might ask if “ignoring everything else” is viable. Is it sustainable if it is necessary to continue taking even more aggressive measures to prevent an increasing segment of the American population from voting?
Alternatively, you could actually cancel the popular vote if it does not play out in the desired manner. Some 147 members of the House of Representatives were ready to do just that. Some politicians were even willing to cancel all the votes from their home state. Then we are in a completely different place, and that is a completely different form of government than democracy.
The fact that you mention Trump has somehow not been successful in prior elections is interesting. We have to recognize that he engaged many voters to vote, but he still lost. Again, why don’t the Republicans renounce Trump?
Francis Fukuyama predicted that it will be several years before we fully understand what type of phenomenon Trump is. We can come up with all sorts of logical explanations; Trump has appealed to certain constituencies which Republicans failed to energize. There are clearly people in the Republican Party who believe that Trump has shown that it can become a working class party. When they say a “working class party,” they mean white workers. The Democratic Party still gets the most workers’ votes.
White identity politics has largely driven Trump’s voters. It finally reached a point where it is no longer compatible with the democratic principles that most Republicans, after all, want to see upheld. On Jan. 6, when angry Trump voters marched to Congress and said, “This is our country, and we have the right to enter Congress, because this is our country and we have paid for the politicians’ offices,” and so forth, it was largely based on the view that the country was theirs because they are white.
It was not based on the belief that they were citizens along with 325 million other Americans. Rather, it was based on the perception that white people have special privileges. This is also the reason why they did not consider it to be an apparent problem to cancel the election results not only from several states, but specifically from places with large concentrations of minority voters. Apparently, they could not accept having lost an election because people in Philadelphia or Detroit voted differently. Therefore, we have reached the limit for how far at least some in the Republican Party are willing to go to support Trump.
You have described the for or against Trump divisiveness in the Republican Party as an actual civil war. As you know, the United States is a two-party system. Given that a crucial party has sunk into a deep identity crisis in which its vision does not have full support, how does that affect American democracy?
American democracy is confronted with a very difficult dilemma because it is a two-party system by nature. In every election in the United States, there have been other parties, but they are like bees; they sting and then they die. They address a problem that neither of the two major parties is dealing with, and then they get absorbed into one of the parties.
The divisiveness within the Republican Party is now so fundamental that it would obviously have split into two parties if the United States had a different system , for example, a multiparty parliamentary system as we have. Allow me to elaborate on what I said before. The business wing of the Republican Party has been extremely flexible. Under Trump, they have had to give up on values that were fundamental to what they believe the Republican Party should represent: globalization, a liberal world order, free trade, etc. When the very foundation of democracy was at stake, it became too much for them.
In essence, one could say this: It will be very difficult for Republicans to look at themselves in the mirror if they do not win this fight, kick Trump and the Trumpists out of the party, and never look back. Otherwise, they will become members of Trump’s party rather than members of the historical Republican Party. It is fair when people say, well then, there must be two Republican parties, but the American system is not really designed to have a three-party system. Consequently, if the Republican Party were to split into two, it would mean that neither of these new parties would ever win an election again.
When we look a little further ahead in time and leave behind the aftermath of the Trump era, what do you think the Republican Party’s vision is going to look like?
Part of it depends on whether one believes Trump will continue to be a powerful figure in American politics, and it does not matter if he is only active on the sidelines. If in four years’ time, he is still active on the sidelines and either decides to run for president or just announces that he is considering it, the discussion is completely different. It matters whether he continues to dictate or at least influence how Republican politicians behave. It matters whether he punishes those who are not loyal or who distance themselves from him and his term as president.
It is a completely different situation if you expel him once and for all. Some hope secretly that because he is no longer on Twitter, this will eventually cause him to fade away and lose status as a political figure.
The question is whether we will see one of his children follow in his footsteps. When Trump gave his children influential jobs, he did this more so because he was trying to establish an oligarchy than because he thought his son or daughter were amazing political geniuses. He has tried to create a family dynasty, and if one of them or if he himself continues to stand on the sidelines, it is going to be very difficult for the Republican Party in the future.
Do I hear you say that despite the attack on Congress and despite the developments we have described, for now, the Republicans have chosen a Trumpist approach in which they do not denounce him. However, they still haven’t chosen a new direction; it is still up in the air as to whether they will fully join Trump’s camp. Is this your viewpoint?
The problem is that no real political project exists anymore. We only talk about “owning the libs,” that is, “upsetting the liberals,” and we do this in different ways. At the Republican National Convention, I think it spoke for itself that they chose not to adopt a party platform at all.
Republican voters want tax reductions, deregulation, etc., and in examining environmental regulation, for example, Trump just rolled back 200 environmental regulations. The rationale behind this deregulation was the belief that human behavior is not responsible for climate change.
Joe Biden’s argument to restore these laws is that climate change is real, and in the end, it will be more expensive for the American economy not to do anything than to do something now. If the Republicans continue along Trump’s lines, it means they are betting on the idea that they do not care about climate change. Trump could not care less; in his view, man-made climate change does not exist. As he said, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” That alone is a premise for doing nothing.
If you want to continue down Trump’s path, you should eliminate every policy applicable to the American business industry. However, many corporations are not interested in that. They do not want to live in a bubble where they have a completely different view of basic scientific facts than the rest of the world. During the last four years, we have witnessed red and blue states fighting over this issue. Trump has firmly waged war with states such as California because it maintained the standards outlined in the Paris climate agreement. Trump also fought with a number of other states like Texas, which has no interest and sees no future in pretending that climate change does not have a role to play.
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