This fear predates Donald J. Trump’s rise to the GOP nomination. It is a concern that I’ve expressed more than once over the last four years. But Trump’s inevitable Election Day loss coupled with a raging Republican civil war has strengthened the odds of a White House under permanent Democratic control.
At this writing, no one knows if Trump will disengage from active Republican politics after November. But it doesn’t really matter because his short-term legacy will be what we’ll call the “Trump Test”:
Did you support Donald Trump?
Did you campaign with or for Trump?
Did you denounce any of Trump’s statements or policy stances? Which ones? How and when?
Did you vote for Trump?
If you’re a candidate for the 2020 GOP nomination, you’re going to have to address these toxic questions. And your answers will inevitably enrage at least one sizable group of voters. Some of the 2020 contenders will have better answers than others. But all will be tainted by their responses to Trump, because of the passion he stirs in both his supporters and his detractors.
On one side are Trump loyalists infuriated that party leaders (see: Paul Ryan) are not fully funding, campaigning with, or standing by their man. After Trump’s inevitable loss in November, these loyalists, many of them grassroots activists who helped Trump win the nomination, are poised to blame the GOP high command, accusing Republican leaders of disloyalty and threatening to leave the party.
On the other side are the Never Trumpers, who will join with the squishy middle to shout, “I told you so” when Trump loses. Expect these folks to be armed with plans to reform the primary system that allowed Trump to “hijack” the party. (“Super delegates” anyone?)
All indications are that the war between these two factions for control of the GOP will only get bloodier between now and 2020. It almost makes you pine for those polite pre-Trump days when the “only” intra-party conflict was between the “conservative” and “establishment” wings of the GOP. But then you remember it was that conflict that spawned this one, by giving rise to a fractured primary field. Competing against 17 other candidates, Trump seized the party by the throat through a combination of bombastic showmanship and voter frustration, gaining momentum after attracting relatively small percentages of fed-up primary voters desperate to try something radically outside the box.
History will note that Trump’s movement eventually demolished all the conservative and establishment candidates and blurred the lines between the party’s two traditional factions. But not forever! When Trump finishes with the party, the traditional factions will reemerge even more divided by the fallout from his loss, the ensuing arguments over his legacy, and fights arising from the 2020 presidential candidates’ answers to the Trump Test.
Democrats, on the other hand, won’t be divided in their opinion of Trump’s historical meaning. They’re already licking their lips in anticipation of the opportunity to replace Bush with Trump as the Republican bogeyman of choice in voters’ minds. Instead of the tired mantra about how Bush wrecked the economy, they’ll be able to hang Trump around the necks of GOP candidates nationwide.
So yes, there is reason to fear that we’ve seen the last Republican president. But going forward, we should keep the faith that a leader will eventually emerge to follow in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps. After all, we know “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”