Updated: Aug 24, 2021
Thursday 23 of December 2021, Thomas Hart
In the wake of partial defeat, with Trump gone but Trumpism not rejected, and the GOP not out of power completely, expect the GOP to be tested to the limits by the coming civil war.
Now that the Trump presidency is beginning to move into the rear-view mirror, some of the internal rifts that it has exposed within the Republican coalition will no doubt burst into full view. Whilst the election papered over some of these divides, being in opposition is always fuel for internal squabbling – as the Labour Party will no doubt attest. I’m going to attempt to avoid making predictions as to the precise nature of when or how these splits may manifest, but I have every confidence that they will soon enough, and almost certainly by the time we reach the 2024 presidential primaries. And with possible contenders already doing the rounds in Iowa, I’d put money on it happening sooner rather than later.
Obviously, the internal machinations of any party with 35 million members and 74 million voters are inevitably going to be quite complex, so in order to better comprehend the dynamics at play here, I feel that it would be instructive to understand the various groupings involved. In my estimation, the best way to do this is to split the party into its four main factions: Moderates, Conventional Conservatives, Trump Loyalists, and Post-Trump Nationalists. I shall now attempt to define these groups.
This is probably the smallest of the factions, primarily defined by their moderate views, particularly on social issues and their openness to working in a bipartisan manner – to a much larger extent than the other factions. They’ve been the most openly hostile faction towards President Trump, with some members such as Mitt Romney refusing to support his re-election campaign. They also tend to oppose some of the garden variety right-wing policies pushed by the Trump Administration, whether through joining interstate groupings to uphold the environmental standards set by the Paris Agreement, or voting against originalist Supreme Court nominees.
Despite their small size, they may fairly quickly become the most powerful of the factions as, if the GOP are able to keep their Senate majority (as seems probable), then in order for the Biden Administration to get anything through Congress, they’ll have to win over moderate GOP senators, such as Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. This could result in the Moderates exercising a greater influence among Republican legislators and thought leaders (the allure of being in the room where it happens can be hard to overcome). Alternatively, it could lead to them being seen as “enablers” of Biden’s agenda – causing them to become further ostracised from the party mainstream.
Potential 2024 presidential candidates among the Moderates include Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
This faction is essentially the remnants of the conservative old guard, who’ve still broadly maintained their positions when it’s come into conflict with Trump’s policies – particularly on trade, but also on spending and some aspects of foreign policy (particularly Russia).
They’ve tended to take a transactional approach to the Trump presidency, putting some of their misgivings to one side in order to achieve conservative policy goals. This is most apparent in the way that Mitch McConnell has managed to confirm originalist judge after originalist judge (261 and counting at the time of writing). And in other traditional right-wing priorities, like tax cuts, deregulation and Middle East policy, the Conventional Conservatives have seen their desires largely fulfilled over the past 4 years. But they have still been willing to publicly criticise Trump for some of his most egregious errors, with his response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville being the most obvious example.
As the heirs to the Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan tradition, a victory for this faction would represent a restoration of the pre-Trump conservative orthodoxy – fiscal restraint, social conservatism, a more hawkish foreign policy, and so on and so forth. It’ll be interesting to see whether they’ve succeeded in their attempts to walk the tightrope of being able to appeal to both the hardcore Trumpists, as well as those who can’t stand the sight of him.
Potential 2024 presidential candidates among the Conventional Conservatives include former UN Ambassador & former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse.
In contrast to the other factions, this grouping is not really defined by any broad policy outlook, aside from loyalty to President Trump. They’ve backed his departures from traditional GOP credos and were the most fervent supporters of his re-election. They’ve been willing to look the other way on Trump’s excesses, or for in the case of more hardcore members of the faction, actively condoning them. At the governmental level, this has (as I see it) mostly been out of a sense of self-preservation, although there do exist convinced Trumpists among elected officials, such as Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz.
This is most certainly the ascendant faction within the party at the moment, and far and away the most popular among the party’s base, but as the reality of Trump no longer being in power begins to set in, you shouldn’t be too surprised if you see their influence start to ebb away – especially if he spins even further out of control than he already has. As an aside, it’d be interesting to see what may come to pass if (or when, depending on your view) Trump gets kicked off Twitter and whether that’s able to dilute (or perhaps strengthen) his influence over the Republican base.
Potential 2024 presidential candidates among the Trump Loyalists include Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump Jr. and (of course) President Trump himself.
While on the surface level, this faction appears broadly similar to the Trump Loyalists, what distinguishes them is their embrace of a more clearly defined policy agenda, as opposed to merely following each and every one of Trump’s whims. This involves breaking with Republican orthodoxy on economic issues, embracing protectionism as well as a much more active role for the federal government in the economy. This can be seen in things such as Marco Rubio’s embrace of “common-good capitalism” and Tom Cotton’s advocacy of “racking up the debt in order to maintain power” in support of greater stimulus measures. They often explicitly talk of transforming the GOP into a multi-ethnic, working-class party – talk that has only intensified after President Trump’s gains among ethnic minority voters (especially Hispanics) at the election.
They pair this with a much more strident commitment to cultural conservatism, staking out positions to the right of the Republican mainstream, like when Josh Hawley stated that he would only support Supreme Court nominees who explicitly committed to voting to overturn Roe v. Wade (a position he subsequently broke to support Amy Coney Barrett). Another example is when Tom Cotton wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, calling for the deployment of federal troops to counter rioting and looting in major American cities following the killing of George Floyd.
Potential 2024 presidential candidates among the Post-Trump Nationalists include Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
Those are only a few examples of issues splitting the factions, however, I don’t mean to suggest that the party is completely disunited, however. There are still many issues on which all the factions are as one. Such as taking a harsher line towards China, or opposing more progressive Biden Administration policies. All on top of a broad commonality in the way that they view politics & society. It’d require something rather explosive for the factions to formally part ways.
I do recognise that a top-down analysis such as this will have some flaws; the categories aren’t absolute, with some politicians not fitting cleanly into one category (e.g. Ted Cruz is probably somewhere between Conventional Conservative and Trump Loyalist) and I’ve probably left some smaller factions such as the libertarians out. Nevertheless, I think this is a useful framework for understanding the inter-party conflict we’ll be seeing over the next 4 years.
Now, as I have not yet managed to develop the power of foresight, I don’t know what the result of these battles will be. Which faction (or factions) will end up on top? What new issues could spring up to divide them? Who will the party choose for 2024? Whilst I must admit to having my own preferred factions & figures, that doesn’t bring me any closer to answering the above questions. I have even less of an idea of what will come to pass when the GOP encounters the American voters at the next election. We could perhaps end up with a conservative Götterdämmerung, or alternatively a period of Republican dominance of the likes not seen since the 1980s. I shall leave those prognostications as an exercise for the reader.
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