Over the past several months, many writers (including myself) have commented on the Republican Party’s turn against democracy. The GOP plainly is plotting to seize power in the future by rigging the electoral system, which is already heavily biased towards the party. As Joshua Tait writes at The Bulwark, conservatives are reaching back to the anti-majoritarian arguments of intellectuals like William F. Buckley to justify their quest for power at any cost. It’s a dire threat to America’s democratic institutions.
But what has been less remarked upon is that it isn’t at all impossible for Republicans to compete in fair elections. With just a slight moderation in policy and by putting up their strongest elected officials as leaders, they would easily be able to assemble a national majority sooner or later. Instead they are choosing Donald Trump, and trying to rig elections because that’s the only way to stuff him down the nation’s throat.
Just consider the hugely popular Republican governors in multiple deep-blue states. In Maryland there is Larry Hogan, who was re-elected in 2018 with 55 percent of the vote; in Massachusetts there is Charlie Baker, who won in 2018 with 67 percent; and in Vermont (the home of socialist Bernie Sanders!) there is Phil Scott, who got 69 percent in 2020.
Now, these governors’ popularity is to some extent dependent on the peculiar circumstances of their states. In all of them the legislature is heavily dominated by Democrats, and many liberals clearly prefer to have a governor of the opposite party to provide a supposed check on one-party rule (though it’s rarely worth bothering even on those terms; in Maryland and Massachusetts, especially, the Democratic machines are deeply corrupt and dead set against anything radical). That’s how Mitt Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts years ago.
So in a national context, Baker, Hogan, and Scott would trip liberals’ national political instincts and a lot of that shine would come off — they’re obviously not going to win their home states. Nevertheless, their huge success in heavily Democratic states demonstrates that many so-called liberals’ commitment to the party’s values and policies is paper-thin. Hogan’s corruption in particular is practically Trump-esque — years back, he canceled a bunch of transit projects that had been painstaking planned for years, and redirected the money towards destructive, polluting highways near properties he owns personally, reportedly raking in millions for himself. Yet in a March poll, 81 percent of Maryland Democrats approved of Hogan — 16 points higher than Maryland Republicans.
As Alex Pareene writes at The New Republic, “Remove affective conservatism — reactionary culture-war-stoking and blunt appeals to white supremacy — from the plutocratic agenda, and well-off liberals may find themselves far more receptive to a right-wing politician.”
The primary reason President Biden has a rock-solid 54 percent approval rating so far is that he is not Donald Trump. Trump’s corruption, incompetence, and wildly erratic behavior deeply alarmed many not-terribly-liberal suburbanites, who were key to Biden’s margin of victory. It follows that the Democrats’ grip on their coalition, which is deeply split along class lines, depends on fear of Trump (and the numerous Trump-style lunatics who are rapidly climbing the GOP hierarchy).
Now, it’s true that blue-state governor Romney lost when he ran against Barack Obama in 2012. But this was because of his cartoonishly plutocratic background as a job-killing Wall Street banker, and a hideously unpopular policy platform of, by, and for the top 1 percent. Trump made significant inroads in the working class in part by ditching most of that rhetoric, and both parties have moved away from the neoliberal consensus that was Republican dogma from 1980-2016.
So it’s not hard to imagine a Republican Party that could build a majority coalition. Just throw the working and middle classes a bone or two by advocating nationalist foreign policy that ends expensive wars, promote domestic economic production with trade reforms, endorse some token regulation of business (particularly anti-trust, which would not require raising taxes), but keep all that modest to keep the donor class on side. Then double down on tax subsidies for the comfortable and affluent to peel off Biden’s suburban voters.
Indeed, the party has already moderated quite considerably on policy. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) recently replaced Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wy.) as the third-ranking House Republican after Cheney was sacked for not bending the knee to Trump. The Club for Growth, a plutocratic think tank, rates Stefanik’s record as worse than Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
But for this to work, the GOP would need a leader who cuts back on the frenzied culture war rhetoric, and doesn’t sound like a deranged maniac — an ordinary politician who projects a soothing, competent affect that would give fussy upper-middle class suburbanites permission to vote their interests. Baker, Hogan, or Scott as a presidential candidate would fit this bill perfectly, and any of them would be a very serious challenger to Biden in terms of votes.
That is obviously impossible. The GOP is a personality cult of Donald Trump — all his critics are being driven out of office, and even putative critics who have left office like former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan are too chicken to even criticize him personally. One reason Baker is so popular is he occasionally mildly criticized Trump, and for that he will likely face a primary challenge. All that just makes the party even more unpopular. As John Ganz writes at Unpopular Front, “The American Right is stuck in a cycle where it alienates public opinion through its strangeness, bitterness, and aggressiveness and then views that very alienation as evidence of the need to become even stranger and more bitter and more aggressive.”
Trump lost in 2020, and in a recent poll, 59 percent of respondents said he should not run for president — but 63 percent of Republicans said he should. That leaves just one option: To get Dear Leader (or someone like him) into the White House again, the GOP will have to cheat.