As President Trump’s reign comes to a dramatic end, the Republican Party is deciding how to build upon his legacy. Trump has heightened racial tensions, demonized immigrants, and undermined democracy, but he appointed conservative judges and created a cult-like following that believes his every word is gospel. Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and many other Republican leaders have embraced Trumpism and celebrated their party’s results in the 2020 election as proof that their leader is a political mastermind. Indeed, Republicans performed better than expected in the House of Representatives and the Senate despite Trump’s decisive loss. However, Republicans should look closely at their victories over the last four years and ask whether Trump helped or hindered the results.
If we look back at 2016, Trump won the Republican nomination because of his approach; he was a showman who spoke brashly and brazenly to the American working-class in a race filled with traditional politicians. He stood out, and he masterfully manipulated the media. Many pundits considered his defeat of Hilary Clinton to be a stroke of genius. In retrospect, however, it is clear that Hilary Clinton herself was one of the most despised figures in American politics. Her approval ratings in 2016 were among the lowest in American history, and her unfavorable ratings were above 50%. Victory for Republicans was virtually ensured once Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders to secure the Democratic nomination. Clinton was an easy foe to beat because the Democratic Party did not build a meaningful message to reach disgruntled working-class people fearful of East Coast elitism, white people weary of the “erosion” of their traditional American ideals, or blue dog Democrats who realized they had more in common with the Republican Party. In Clinton, the white working-class found the embodiment of the political class that they despised. Trump was the wrong man in the right place at the right time.
Almost immediately after the election, most Americans, especially Republicans, chose to overlook Trump’s abrasive personality because the stock market was skyrocketing and conservative judges were gaining positions on the Supreme Court. Undoubtedly, Trump had a rabid base that bought his simplistic answers to complex questions because Trump’s ideas fed into conspiracy theories that explained the decline of “white culture.” Yet, moderate Republicans believed his victories were worth the moral sacrifice. In reality, these victories had little to do with Trump. Axios demonstrated that presidents have little impact on the stock market, and the Supreme Court victories belonged more to timing and the workings of Mitch McConnell than to the President. Republican leaders explained Trump’s failures on repealing Obamacare or developing a trade plan to restore manufacturing to America by leaning into conspiracies about “radical left” Democrats. Many Republicans willingly sold a lie that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was responsible for their failures instead of accepting that their president did not understand the “art of the deal.”
By 2020, Trump’s perceived victories grew smaller as his limitations grew larger. Trump could not articulate any detailed plan to overturn Obamacare, he had no grand immigration plan, and his foreign policy of undermining NATO and the UN transformed America into a joke across the globe. As COVID-19 plagued the world, it became clear to domestic and foreign observers alike that Trump was laughably incapable of rising to the challenge. He repeatedly ignored social distancing and healthcare guidelines, and he lamented the fact that the media only covered “COVID, COVID, COVID!” His “anti-globalist” agenda meant that America could not develop a robust international response to the crisis. He was incapable of portraying empathy for the almost 250,000 people who died due to the virus. Instead, he deepened divisions by referring to the nation explicitly in terms of red and blue states, and fueling the fury of many paranoid, alt-right groups who viewed the pandemic as a Democratic Party coup. His inability to handle the crisis with even a modicum of tact or restraint at a time when unemployment, depression, and illness ravished the nation left a sour taste in the mouths of many voters.
The result? Trump had risen to power on an “anyone but Hilary” mentality, but he turned many moderate voters to “anyone but Trump.” The 2020 Presidential Campaign should have been a slam dunk for Republicans. In times of crisis, voters tend to rally around their leader, but Trump had the opposite effect. Ironically, COVID-19 demonstrated that the country needed someone a little more conventional, boring, and “low energy.” The pandemic exacerbated hostility in a political arena that was already on edge. Trump’s actions enraged Democrats and alienated many older suburban voters who believed in a politics of respectability. Against the backdrop of the crisis, his repeated attacks on immigrants, his outrageous response to Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and his constant whining about his unfair treatment at the hands of the traditional media no longer seemed forgivable.
Today, some Republicans credit Trump for gaining the most votes of any incumbent president in history. Pundits in right-wing outlets have pointed to the “broad coalition” that helped Trump increase the Republican percentage of the Black and Hispanic vote. But we have to ask ourselves if Trump can truly be credited with these achievements. Cuban and Venezuelan Americans support the Republican Party because both groups tend to be more religious than white voters, hold pro-family policies, and dislike the “identity politics” of the “radical left.” Many Black men have grown disgruntled with the Democratic Party because they have lived in major cities for sixty years without seeing their lives change for the better. Indeed, a significant amount of Black people have become critical of the Democratic Party’s focus on identity issues because it has not improved their basic standard of living. Trump was the beneficiary of these electoral shifts, not the cause of them.
What if a different Republican had won in 2016?
On a counter-factual note, it is likely that if Marco Rubio, John Kasich, or even Jeb Bush were President in 2020, they would have been reelected, and the Republicans could have gained even more seats. The hatred for Clinton was so intense in 2016 that Rubio or Kasich would have defeated her. The people who voted Trump would have voted for Rubio or Kasich too. Post-election, Republicans would have still achieved their stock market and Supreme Court victories under Rubio, Kasich, or Bush. In fact, they could have developed a more effective tax bill and passed a healthcare plan under more traditional political leaders.
During the global pandemic, it is unlikely that Kasich, with his sensible ‘uncle’ persona, or Rubio, with his boyish style, would have had such a similar alienating effect in Trump’s place. Undoubtedly, they would have been more willing to listen to experts, used more reserved language, and displayed more compassion. Despite embracing the partisan politics of the Trump Era, Rubio has stated that “We’ve become so deranged politically in America that we’ve turned a virus, a respiratory virus into a partisan fight…people are listening to this wild hysteria on one side or irresponsible and crazy denial on the other.”
Importantly, Rubio, Bush, or Kasich, could have faced a more favorable political landscape in 2020. They would not have had to run against a moderate candidate like President-Elect Joe Biden. Biden ran for president because he wanted to save the “soul of the nation” from the immoral leadership of Trump. He won the presidency because many people, including swing voters, wanted a “return to normal.” Trump gifted Biden with the “character vote” by acting in a highly unpresidential manner during the crisis of a generation. It is unlikely that other Republican candidates would have caused the same issues. In contrast to Trump, most Republican candidates have demonstrated restraint and moderation in discussing significant issues. Rubio and Bush have rejected caging children at borders, supported some of the ideals of BLM while condemning violence, and embraced a more traditional American foreign policy. Rubio, Kasich, and Bush would have overcome a challenge from any Democrat candidate, most likely to be Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, with their moderate language, the public’s need for stability during a crisis, and the economic and Supreme Court successes that were handed to Trump.
Lastly, they would have had a less adversarial relationship with the media while also maintaining minority gains of 2020. Rubio, Kasich, and Bush may not have chatted with Anderson Cooper in a bar, but their relationship with CNN, MSNBC, and other significant outlets would have been less bitter. They may not have condemned the media as “enemies of the people,” and they would have been less likely to focus their message solely on Fox News viewers. They would not have used overtly racist or sexist language, so they would not have fed into a media frenzy. Rubio, a Cuban American, Bush, and Kasich would have seen the same increase in minority votes in 2020 as Trump. As previously mentioned, the Latino population in Florida and many Black men voted for Trump because they did not buy into the “indentity politics” of Democrats, and they tend to be more religious and family-oriented than white counterparts. Their “switch” in voting pattern had more to do with the Democratic Party’s failure than Trump’s success, so we can assume that Rubio, Kasich, or Bush would have benefited from the same shift.
Yet, Rubio, Kasich, and Bush were not president in 2020. Trump lost the Presidency despite his efforts to discredit the election. In fact, his own intelligence agencies have deemed the 2020 election one of the most secure in American history. In the end, Trump was the architect of his own demise, but he was rarely the tactician in his own victories. An alternative such as Rubio, Kasich, and Bush would have been a two-term leader. The odds were in the Republican Party’s favor, as evidenced by their gains in Congress and their ability to pick up votes on a local level. The reason Republicans won while Trump lost is simply because many Americans were fed up with his moral defects. President Trump can sit in the White House complaining of a rigged election, but the Republican Party should avoid hitching their wagon to the Trump train because it has always led them off the rails.
Conor Joseph Donnan is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also on the board of several non-profits including, a compassionate listening organization named Someone To Tell It To.