Has Donald Trump Become The GOP's Poison Pill?

Supporters listen and look on as Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie delivers his concession speech.
Supporters listen and look on as Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie delivers his concession speech.

First published in The Boston Globe.

On Tuesday, a wave of anti-Trump sentiment propelled a middling Democrat to Virginia’s governorship and wiped out GOP legislators across the state. Trumpism was on the ballot — desperate to win, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate stoked the passions of Trump’s base, inflaming racial anxieties and defending Confederate monuments. This proved to be a kamikaze mission.

Now Republicans across America must confront an existential question: Will President Trump become an electoral poison pill? The immediate implications are clear – trouble for the GOP’s legislative agenda, and its congressional candidates in 2018. But the larger issue is what lies beyond.

Within the GOP, whispers intensify: In the 2020 presidential race, would it fare better without Trump? But with whom? Indeed, who would brave the anger of the base? In the wake of Trump, what has the GOP become? And would an effort to replace him tear Republicans apart.

A survey of potential candidates illustrates this dilemma. All have real problems — because of who they are, or how the party has devolved. Republican politics are increasingly tribal instead of ideological: The base hews to Trump because they loathe his enemies. Just ask Senators Bob Corker or Jeff Flake.

In 2016, Trump sacked the GOP establishment by inflaming its restive base. Little suggests that their unruly passions are easily transferable to a more decorous successor.

Start with Vice President Mike Pence. His talents are those of a servile schemer, faking ostentatious loyalty while awaiting Trump’s fall. His electoral appeal is dubious – prior to becoming Trump’s running mate, he struggled for reelection as Indiana’s governor.

Pence is a pious phony — an advocate of strict morality who rose by providing craven testament for the libertine Trump. The GOP’s blue-collar legions may have swallowed Trump’s fake populism, but Pence’s donor-friendly platitudes will never fly. The Koch brothers own him.

He also exemplifies how Trump diminishes all who serve him. Witness Pence’s latest pantomime of fealty — a showy exit from a professional football game, under orders from Trump, because players knelt in protest during the national anthem. Trump has exposed him as a sock puppet, not a president.

But at least Pence can hope to become president by default. His potential rivals may be forced to challenge Trump directly.

Not that Ted Cruz would mind. The role of Brutus suits him — there is no pretender more contriving than the dank Prince of Darkness.

A sequence of transparent calculations doomed his 2016 campaign. He began as a tribune of the Tea Party, precipitating a government shutdown while castigating Republican leaders as cowards. Unremarkably, his colleagues loathe him.

A second misstep was embracing retrograde social conservatism, angling to monopolize evangelicals. But Trump stole them in droves. His subsequent decimation in northern primaries exposed the narrowness of his appeal.

He surfaced anew as the sanctimonious skunk at Trump’s convention, climaxing a self-aggrandizing speech about political conscience with his refusal to endorse — until opprobrium within the base compelled him to re-orient his conscience. But the apostasy lingers.

His more recent calculations include calling the Russia probe a “political circus” while decrying racism in Charlottesville. But he is stuck with the oleaginous manner of a second-tier televangelist, complete with histrionics and an air of sincerity that is transparently insincere. No candidate so repellent can heal a wounded party — let alone inspire the electorate at large.

But in 2016 Marco Rubio established the limits of inspiration.

Instead of substance, Rubio offered us ... himself. His campaign resembled a perpetual Fourth of July, featuring a touching origin speech — complete with humble parents who achieved the American dream — delivered so movingly that tears welled in one’s eyes. Until one heard it for the 50th time.

But who was Rubio, really? A too-young man in far too big a hurry, forever shape-shifting in pursuit of the ultimate prize. As a Senate candidate, he took a hard line on immigration reform; as a budding presidential aspirant, he became a leading sponsor of an immigration reform bill. Until, confronted with anger within the base, he sold out his cosponsors and repudiated his own bill. Climbing was the only meaning of Rubio’s American dream.

There was no real Rubio constituency because there was no real Rubio. Trounced by Trump, he reversed his prior insistence that he was done with the Senate. Now he is re-taking old ground as a defender of national security and human rights. But these are not burning issues in Trump’s nativist GOP.

Then there’s Trump’s dour understudy, Tom Cotton.

Here’s Cotton in a nutshell: A 40-year-old senator from Arkansas. A hardliner on immigration. A foe of criminal justice reform. A favorite of right-wing ideologues and evangelicals. An opponent of equal pay for women.

Of the would-be’s, Cotton fares best at echoing Trump. He defends Trump against the Russia probe. He parrots the cultural resentments that animate Trump’s followers. He shares Trump’s fervor for the Wall. And so on.

Like Cruz, he is an educated man who caters to fear and ignorance — and is as charmless as an undertaker. Should Trump go down, Cotton may wrest the hard right from Pence and Cruz. But he lacks Trump’s gift for mass provocation, and one doubts the general electorate will cotton to a flavorless facsimile.

In contrast, John Kasich has the most potential in a general election, for the precise reasons he will probably never get there. He is a son of the working class who acts like one. He praises decency and compromise. He advocates free trade yet cares about struggling workers. But he is a relative moderate who opposed Trump throughout, and that will damn him among a primary electorate whose animus Trump channels. So, also, with Corker, Flake, or Senator Ben Sasse, all alien to the unmoored outrage that is crack cocaine for the base.

In retrospect, Trump was an electoral freak – he galvanized blue-collar voters suspicious of the GOP establishment while holding Republicans to whom Hillary Clinton was anathema. Trump’s base is shrinking but stalwart — recent polling among Republicans shows Trump slaughtering Pence, Cruz, and Kasich. Absent a full-blown scandal or economic or foreign disaster, the GOP is stuck with an irredeemable narcissist indifferent to its plight. To replace him would probably fracture the party, leaving a survivor with diminished Republican support yet tarred by Trump among the general electorate. Having given the GOP a stunning victory, Trump has become its future — and its fate.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.