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Trump vs the Republican Party: Kevin Kruse

Donald Trump speaks alongside Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in the White House, 17th September 2017. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

This is the seventh interview in an eight-part series. See the other interviews here.

Kevin Kruse
Author and professor of history at Princeton University

When Mitch McConnell told the Senate at Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial that the former president was “practically and morally responsible” for provoking the 6th January 2021 assault on the Capitol, it marked a resumption of hostilities in a war most observers thought Trump had already decisively won. During the Republican primaries for the 2016 election, the Senate minority leader and almost every other leading Republican criticised Trump in the harshest terms: Marco Rubio labelled him “an embarrassment”, Lindsey Graham called him a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” and Ted Cruz said he was “utterly amoral”. But when Trump became the candidate they quickly fell in line.

“They all assumed he couldn’t win,” says Kevin Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University who specialises in modern conservative politics in the US. “They thought an establishment politician would win, but the establishment vote was spread out over a dozen candidates and Trump had a lane to himself… The key to understanding Trump’s acceptance by both the Republican base and its officials is that he clearly signalled that he would deliver on the things most of them cared about more than anything else.”

These things were tax cuts and, more importantly, judges. Kruse says that it was understood that conservative judges appointed by Trump would roll back LGBTQ and abortion rights, and back deregulation. This was enough, ultimately, to neuter any doubts evangelical Christians might have had about backing a serial adulterer who had been taped bragging about sexually assaulting women.

“He summoned the evangelicals, gave them the list of judges, and when they saw it they were all in,” says Kruse. The Party of Lincoln became the Party of Trump.

With Trump the dog-whistle became a bullhorn”

The Republican establishment may initially have shunned the brusque outsider, but Kruse says that Trump’s brand of populism wasn’t an entirely new phenomenon in the party. “The racism, the nativism, the flirtation with white supremacy – a lot of this has been there under the surface for years,” he says. “You can look at Ronald Reagan talking about ‘welfare queens’ [which critics said played on stereotypes of black women] and George HW Bush’s Willie Horton ad [which many said played on white fears of black criminals], but with Trump the dog-whistle became a bullhorn. It’s not that people didn’t believe these things before, but they had thought that they shouldn’t speak openly about them. Trump gave the large segment of those on the right who have these views permission to speak openly and proudly about them.”

Part of the reason the Republican establishment didn’t think Trump could win was because they had crunched the numbers. After Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012, the party produced an autopsy report, which concluded that due to changing demographics in the US it would have to appeal to minorities, young people and the LGBTQ community if it were to win power again. Kruse believes that while Trump showed how the “politics of white grievance” could triumph four years later, in the long-term the report will be proved right – the party, he says, is heading towards a “demographic death spiral” if it doesn’t reinvent itself.

However, Republicans hoping to dismantle Trumpism face a challenge. In December 2020 nearly two-thirds of the party’s lawmakers in the House of Representatives backed Trump’s baseless allegations of a stolen election by supporting a lawsuit seeking to overturn the result in the supreme court. At Trump’s second impeachment trial only seven of 50 Republican senators voted to convict him. And a February 2021 poll showed over half of Republican voters saying they would back Trump again if he ran in 2024. Kruse doesn’t think Trump has the “energy or interest” to run again, and that the mythology around him may be undermined during the various lawsuits he might face.

True to form, Donald Trump punched back against Mitch McConnell’s speech, calling the Republican grandee “a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack”. It is perhaps telling that McConnell didn’t back Trump’s conviction at the second impeachment trial – and risk the wrath of his base. The party, it would appear, is still firmly in the hands of the man at Mar-a-Lago.

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #41 of Delayed Gratification

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