Almost every losing presidential campaign inspires books and articles featuring disgruntled aides peddling inside stories, all built around the theme, “If only he had listened to me …”
But even though Donald Trump may be defeated in the most lopsided election since 1988, it will be hard for anyone to claim that a different strategy would have changed the outcome. Because Trump, as candidate and president, has only one speed and one approach — screaming at the top of his lungs about a phantom menace that he believes will rouse the rabble.
No matter how obsessed the president becomes with finding a more powerful epithet than “Sleepy Joe” to define Joe Biden, this is an election about Donald Trump and not “Joltin’ Joe.” As Trump hurtles from incompetence (COVID-19) to hatred (threatening demonstrators with “vicious dogs”), spewing lies and venom as he goes, Republicans should accept that their candidate will never change.
There comes a moment in every performer’s career when the old jokes fail and the traditional applause lines are greeted with silence. That is the lasting message from the empty-seated Tulsa rally in a state that a Democratic presidential candidate last carried in 1964.
But Trump lacks the capacity and the will to change his act. The only swing voters he cares about are those who are poised to take a swing at his enemies.
Because of the pandemic, we have reached that moment when there is suddenly a dwindling band of Trump loyalists willing to risk their health to serve as a claque at rallies for a president with uncontrolled ego needs.
So what’s the next step? Pollsters announcing that Utah is a swing state? OK, I exaggerate. But only a little. Trump, after all, is defensively advertising in Georgia, a state that hasn’t gone Democratic in this century.
Of course, things can turn around for Trump in the next four months.
Trump could be the solitary genius, beavering away at night in his secret White House laboratory, who discovers the COVID-19 vaccine. Or maybe the economy will rebound in a gravity-defying way that would baffle Isaac Newton.
In reality, a strong case can be made that the polls today reflect a realistic appraisal of Trump’s appeal. Even Fox News viewers are not racing off to find a bookie so they can bet the family fortune on a president who is trailing by an average of 9 points in the national polls.
The future of Trumpism
There is a widespread assumption in GOP circles that even if Trump does lose the White House, his politics will live on. It is why Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley — not to mention Ted Cruz — are trying to be even more unyielding in their Trumpism than the president himself.
It is almost as if the new Lost Cause in 2024 will be the Trump presidency rather than the Confederacy, whose statues the president bravely vows to protect. But it is hard to believe that Trump nostalgia will sweep the land after Americans are exposed to competent, honest government under Biden.
Devastating electoral losses tend to concentrate the mind. The nation has been so evenly divided politically for so long that we have forgotten what a true rout feels like.
In 1964 and 1972, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern failed to crack 40 percent of the vote. The Republicans won three landslide elections in the 1980s — races in which 38 states voted GOP all three times.
In the feedback loop that is American democracy, the losing party got the message from an election night that ended before young children were put to bed.
For all the talk of the Goldwater revolution seeding the Ronald Reagan years, Republicans went 16 years between conservative triumphs at the convention. After the McGovern debacle, the Democrats rebounded in 1976 with a presidential nominee who seemed the antithesis of the liberal left — a Sunday school teaching former governor of a Southern state named Jimmy Carter.
After Carter’s 1980 reelection wipeout (he carried just six states), the Democrats first lurched left with Walter Mondale in 1984 and then tried a technocratic approach with Michael Dukakis in 1988. Only after three debacles, did the party turn to the South again with Bill Clinton running as an anti-crime, fix-welfare New Democrat.
A Republican reset?
So I think it is a mistake to assume that the Republican Party has made a permanent break with rationality. And that what comes after Trump will be a little bit louder and a little bit worse.
Yes, the timidity of Republicans in Congress remains one of the most depressing elements of Trump’s reign of error. Even when the House has been lost and the Senate majority is in jeopardy, the dominant mood among Capitol Hill Republicans is: “Full speed ahead. Let’s hit that iceberg harder.”
But smart Republicans, even if they are nervously hiding in corners, realize that demographics are political destiny. And that as the nation’s white majority shrinks, the GOP cannot survive if its central appeal is anti-immigrant xenophobia and thinly disguised racism.
Also, in a world buffeted by pandemics and climate change, there is no long-term percentage in being a political party that rejects science. Sooner or later, the Republicans will have to recognize that denial is a foolhardy approach as the water is lapping around your knees.
The GOP’s convulsions after Trump will not be pretty. But the future of our democracy depends on America’s experiment with ignorant authoritarianism ending permanently with a Biden landslide in November.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.