Culture Wars/Current Controversies

What’s happening to the U.S. Republican Party?

What’s happening to the U.S. Republican Party? A.B. Stoddard on signs of change, their ambiguous direction, and the resilience of populism on the American right.
The Signal
The Signal
Hosting a 24-year-old avowed white nationalist and internet provocateur named Nick Fuentes for dinner last week, along with the musician and entrepreneur Kanye West—who’s put himself in Fuentes’s company after making a series of anti-Semitic public statements—the former U.S. president Donald Trump brought on yet another moment of controversy in America. Condemnations came from across the political spectrum—including from prominent Republican politicians and conservative media figures who until recently, even after the U.S. Capitol riot in 2021, had been reluctant ever to criticize Trump. But with a slate of candidates he endorsed having lost their races in this year’s midterm elections—notably, the 2020 “election deniers” who’ve refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency—many Republicans have begun publicly blaming Trump for their party’s overall electoral failures. Meanwhile, as the former president announced his own candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, influential media outlets on the right are now promoting Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis as the better bet—“DeFuture,” as a New York Post headline put it. But Trump still has powerful allies and broad support in the Republican base, assets that have made him untouchable in the party since 2016. Is something different this time?
A.B. Stoddard is an American journalist who’s covered U.S. politics for decades, now an associate editor and columnist with RealClearPolitics. To Stoddard, while it’s unusual how right-wing elites have started to speak out against Trump and his influence in the Republican Party, it’s not at all clear how long this behavior will last. Though DeSantis and a number of other would-be candidates are already pitching themselves as alternative directions for the party, no one really knows yet how many Republican voters actually want to go in an alternative direction—and ultimately, Republican voters are the only constituency that matters. Whatever happens, Stoddard thinks, there’s no evidence that these voters will support anything other than some version of the populist politics Trump won over their party with—let alone that they’ll turn back to the style of conservatism that dominated the party before him.
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Graham Vyse: What do you make of all the losses among candidates Trump supported in the recent U.S. midterms?
A.B. Stoddard: A lot of Democratic voters would like to think this election demonstrated that Americans roundly reject election deniers. I don’t think it’s that straightforward. Many Americans, who may not have much awareness about the question of U.S. democracy being in peril, nonetheless showed up to vote on the issue of abortion access—less than five months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended a national right to abortion. Young voters don’t often vote in midterm elections—and many of them don’t even know what midterm elections are—but the Court’s decision infuriated them. It caused a spike in voter registration among young Americans—young American women, in particular—which helped Democrats and hurt Republicans.
Meanwhile, many independent voters thought that many Republican candidates were outlandish. We saw a lot of Americans split their tickets, voting for candidates of both parties, demonstrating that some voters are still persuadable—even in such a politically polarized country. We saw a rejection of candidates who seemed too extreme, with Trump-backed and election-denying candidates in particular not doing well. But that factor on its own—the aversion to extremists, Trump allies, and election deniers—is mixed in with all these others. Parsing them out isn’t simple.
Vyse: What are some of the broader significant patterns you see in the election results?
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Stoddard: Hispanic support for Democrats continued to erode. Now, some people will tell you the erosion has “stabilized” since 2020, but the reality is that Hispanics are leaving the Democratic Party, and Democrats need those voters in their coalition. Ultimately, this year’s election results are confusing for both parties, because neither seems able to correct for its problems: Republicans might say their losses were Trump’s fault, but some voters may have been focused on the extreme anti-abortion laws that went into effect across a number of U.S. states after the Supreme Court’s decision.
It’s plausible that Democrats’ messages on cultural issues are playing a role in repelling working-class Black and Hispanic voters, sending them into the arms of the Republican Party. Many Hispanic voters don’t believe themselves to be “Brown”; they identify as white, they’re interested in Republicans’ economic messages, and they’re alienated—just as working-class white Republicans are—by “woke” ideology, especially the anti-police rhetoric that got very loud in 2020. Democrats managed to quiet that rhetoric down in 2022, but it’s still threatening to their party politically, because of the issues of crime. They largely ignored that issue in this election, even as spikes in crime scared voters from both parties and in all kinds of neighborhoods—urban, suburban, and exurban. The Democratic Party mostly pretended it wasn’t happening, but many Black and Brown voters want more police in their neighborhoods. They’re concerned for their personal security. This is a serious political liability for Democrats, and this year’s election hasn’t forced the party to reckon with it.
More from A.B. Stoddard at The Signal:
If I were setting out to win the Republican nomination in 2024, I’d position myself as a populist, someone who’s against the elites, someone who’s very focused on immigration and the culture of American education. “Parents’ rights” is an extremely resonant theme among Republicans. I wouldn’t talk about health-care or entitlement reforms. This Republican Party is largely uninterested in limited government. It’s much more interested in a durable social-safety net, which is what Trump promised his voters. He said he wouldn’t cut their Social Security or Medicare, and that was important to them.”
I will be curious to see who’s still a capitalist in the Republican Party, who’s turned off by the kind of authoritarian-socialist style of politics DeSantis is drawing on in Florida as a culture warrior—using the arm of the state to batter private businesses like Disney. That sort of thing wouldn’t have been acceptable to traditional Republicans. It’s new to the party in the Trump era, and the base loves it, but how much does the rest of the Republican electorate like it?”
Before Trump was a political candidate, he had his aides listen to right-wing talk radio and hear what the Republican base was upset about. It was largely immigration and trade. Debates over those issues are convulsing democracies around the world, along with fights over nationalism, socialism, and populism. A lot of the orthodoxies of the old Republican Party—beliefs in limited government, in returning public money to taxpayers, in the government staying out of the private sector, in the United States playing a leading role on the world stage—disappeared after Trump rose to power.”

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