Whatever their disappointment about this month’s lackluster midterm results might be, the United States’ conservative establishment has clearly sensed an opportunity. Over the past two weeks, a swelling cavalcade of right-wing pundits, talking heads, and elected officials have sought to distance themselves from Donald Trump and signal in no uncertain terms that the future of the Republican Party lies elsewhere.
Reacting to the results, Fox’s Laura Ingraham — notably a longtime Trump sycophant — remarked: “It is not about any one person. If the voters conclude that you’re putting your own ego . . . ahead of what’s good for the country, they’re going to look elsewhere. Period.” Former congressman Mick Mulvaney, who served as Trump’s chief of staff for over a year, meanwhile told CNBC:
I’m ready for a generational change in my party. Ron DeSantis would make a great president. Tim Scott would make a great president. Nikki Haley would make a great president. Mike Pompeo. Mike Pence. Go down the list. . . . I think [Trump] is the only Republican who could lose.
Also joining the chorus was Candace Owens, who asked, “What is his vision for 2024? Is it going to be more than ‘I’m back’? Because that’s not a vision to me.” None other than Chris Christie, arguably one of the most abject and pathetic Trump grovelers on the face of the earth, even drew applause for his attacks on the former president at a recent meeting of Republican governors. Apparently smelling blood, the National Review several days ago issued an editorial rejecting a Trump rerun in 2024 simply titled “No.” The opening lines of a November 14 report in Politico more or less sum up what now seems to be the consensus view on the state of Trumpism after the 2022 midterms: “Donald Trump’s iron grip on the GOP is beginning to crack. And some Republicans aren’t even sure he’s in command at all anymore.”
Watching these convulsions, it’s hard not to feel a palpable sense of déjà vu. Throughout the entirety of his initial rise, virtually every part of what officially calls itself the conservative movement — from big-money corporate donors and Republican power brokers to the supposedly upright and cerebral intellectuals who populate outlets like National Review — did their utmost to brand Trump an electoral albatross and instruct Republican voters to reject him.
To say that none of it mattered would, if anything, be an understatement. Far from blunting the mercurial front-runner’s momentum, the Republican establishment’s attacks on Trump only seemed to make the base like him more. In the years since, Trumpism not only brought erstwhile critics onside — including many of those who had contributed to the National Review’s January 2016 “Against Trump” issue — but so firmly embedded itself as the lingua franca of American conservatism that it’s become difficult to imagine what a post-Trumpian GOP would even look like.
If there was a broader takeaway to be drawn from the Trump candidacy and subsequent Trump presidency, it was that the conservative establishment wielded considerably less authority or legitimacy within the Republican base than its elites had long liked to tell themselves. Having repeatedly ordered Republican primary voters not to anoint Trump as their standard-bearer, those voters proceeded to do so anyway — and, having done so, rallied around his administration with a fanatical devotion arguably without precedent in US politics. Predictably enough, many of the right-wing elites who had so shrilly spent a year or more denouncing Trump hastily bent the knee.
Notwithstanding all of this, the Republican Party’s decidedly unremarkable showing in the recent midterms appears to have inspired right-wing apparatchiks and opinion leaders to initiate a reboot of their own failed strategy from 2016. Trump, it must be said, does indeed look weaker than he’s looked for quite some time. His recent presidential announcement, while hitting all of the familiar notes, was a somewhat downbeat and deflated affair lacking the transgressive aura of its 2015 equivalent and devoting considerable time to the parochial grievances that have increasingly dominated Trumpist discourse since 2020.
Barring some unexpected shift in American conservatism, however, there’s little reason to believe that the dynamics of 2016 won’t persist into 2024. Among the basic lessons of 2016 was that pure and unrestrained ideology is a much more potent force within the Right than the conventional electoralism typically favored by Republican elites. Conservative donors and public intellectuals may prefer to erect an artifice of respectability around their project, but Republican voters overwhelmingly respond when such calculations are set aside and their pleasure centers are stimulated instead. No figure on the modern right has done that more effectively than Trump, and even if the growing chorus of critics is correct in deeming him a spent force and an electoral liability, there’s little reason to think it will be of any concern to the Republican base.
If anything, in fact, such attacks may help Trump rediscover his lost élan and reclaim the mantle of transgressive outsider that served him so well throughout his improbable 2016 ascendancy. As the young conservative writer Nate Hochman recently observed:
One of the reasons Trump’s base adores him is that he overcame overwhelming odds — including both party establishments — to win. The more Republican elites consolidate against him, the more otherwise persuadable Trump voters are going to remember why they loved him in the first place.