You Have to Think of Trump’s Election as Year Zero
Because Republican voters say they don’t want any part of a Republican party that looks anything like it did before 2016.
THERE ARE EVENTS SO EPOCHAL that they create clear periods of before and after: Hiroshima; the fall of the Berlin Wall; 9/11. Eight years after he declared his intention to run for president, it’s now clear that we should consider Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign not as part of America’s political continuum but as one of these temporal dividing lines.
In American politics, there were conventions and candidates that existed in 2015 Republican politics as the before times. 2015 BT. Before Trump.
Before the escalator and “grab ’em by the p***y.” Before Muslim bans and a wall Mexico would never pay for. Before we’d heard of Marjorie Taylor Greene, or Lauren Boebert, or the QAnon shaman. Before an American president sided with Vladimir Putin over his own government’s intelligence network. Before Donald Trump became the first president to turn his back on the peaceful transfer of power.
This period has existed outside of nearly all established norms, yet many Americans seem to believe that it is an interregnum. An aberration. An accident of history that will undo itself—soon—as norms and the old equilibrium return.
I think this view misunderstands the true nature of what has happened to the Republican party because it does not see what has happened to Republican voters.
I’ve sat through hundreds of focus groups with GOP voters over the last four years and one thing is perfectly clear: The Republican party has been irretrievably altered and, as one GOP voter put it succinctly, “We’re never going back.”
IT’S EASY TO IDENTIFY people who don’t realize the transformation undergone by GOP voters. Many of them, in fact, have been talking about running for president. Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson, Mike Pompeo—these are Before Trump (BT) politicians who don’t quite realize they’re living in an After Trump (AT) world.
Take Pence: the OG of BT. Voters tell me variously that the former vice president “became too entrenched in the establishment,” “alienated everyone,” “seems like a perfectly nice man, but [doesn’t] have a chance,” is “just a puppet,” and “doesn’t have a spine.”
As one voter put it, speaking for the group, a Pence presidency “would just be a return to pre-2016, which is what . . . the elite want. They want everything to go back to the way it was before Trump got elected. And that would be the wrong direction.”
Or Nikki Haley. The former South Carolina governor is currently running as far and fast as she can away from her signature accomplishment in office: taking down the Confederate flag after the massacre at a black church in Charleston in 2015. Instead, she’s reinvented herself as a hardline Trump devotee who loves to kick her enemies. But trying to sound Trumpy doesn’t cover up the fact that she’s an avatar of the before times.
Haley is at 2 percent in the polls. Voters I talk to call her “a milquetoast Republican” and “a status quo politician, basically,” telling me “she’s just going to be a return to what everything was before 2016.”
Others say they “don’t think she’s anything different than the Republicans we’ve seen in the past. She’s just going to be more of the same cookie-cutter views.” And: “She would just be right back to the Paul Ryan, John Boehner kind of a thing. That’s a no-go for me.”
Then there’s aspiring brawler Chris Christie: the former New Jersey governor bills himself as a tough-talking, no-nonsense truth-teller, one of the few who could stick it to Trump mano-a-mano in 2024, just like he did to Little Marco in 2016. But Republican base voters aren’t buying it: Exactly 0 percent of those polled recently said they’d support a Christie run.
That’s because voters mostly know him for prototypically swampy scandals like bridgegate, beachgate, and—most unforgivable to a GOP primary voter—the hug heard ’round the world.
If you forged your political identity pre-Trump, then you belong to a GOP establishment now loathed by a majority of Republican primary voters. Even if you agree with Trump. Even if you worked for Trump. Even if you were on Trump’s ticket as his vice president.
Sure, you can still get applause on the think tank circuit, and donors will look at your candidacy hopefully, checkbooks out. But the actual voters live in a new world. You’re selling buggy whips to people who are buying cars.
CONSIDER THE CASE of Ron DeSantis. He is the only viable challenger to Trump at the moment. He has remade Florida in his image, becoming America’s premier culture warrior. He is notable primarily for:
Taking stands against vaccines
Hiring quack doctors for public health positions
Yelling at college kids
Demonizing gays and lesbians as pedophile groomers
Making it illegal to discuss race in schools
Attacking Disney’s corporate status because the company’s cartoons are too “woke”
Shipping refugees to Martha’s Vineyard
More than any other politician in America, DeSantis has labored to turn himself into a mini-Trump.
And what is DeSantis’s big weakness in his looming primary fight? It’s his BT political career.
Because before he became Trump’s handpicked governor, DeSantis was a normie mid-2010s Republican: He had Tea Party credentials. He was hawkish on Russia. He was a founding father of the House Freedom Caucus. And like all good Ryan-era conservatives, he wanted to privatize Social Security as a means to save our unsustainable entitlement system.
Trump is already trying to hang DeSantis with his BT record, attacking him as beholden to “Establishment RINO Advisors” and a “RINO in disguise!” who would gut Social Security and Medicare.
There are early signs that these attacks are working. You can see it in DeSantis’s declining poll numbers. But I hear it in the focus groups, too. Voters I talked to recently say they’re “a little concerned” about DeSantis “because he’s still establishment,” and that “he seems like more of an open-borders, Paul Ryan kind of guy.” Others called him “more of a politician than Trump is” and said “he is very much one of those political, swampy guys.”
Words that stood out when we asked voters to describe DeSantis: “wishy-washy,” “a little shady,” and “not trustworthy.” One said, “I just don't have a good feeling in my gut about him.”
THERE’S A STARK DIFFERENCE between DeSantis and the other potential Republican candidates. Nikki Haley et al. seem to believe that they can win the nomination by returning to the optimistic conservatism of the 2015 Republican party. DeSantis realizes that his only chance to win the nomination is to convince voters that the optimistic, conservative BT-version of himself didn’t exist.
Yet whatever happens from here on out, I suspect that 2023 will be the year that puts to rest the view that the old days will return. By the time this campaign hits New Hampshire, everyone in America—even the conservative think tank donors—will understand that we aren’t living through an interregnum, but rather have passed into a new age.
The question, then, will be what AT Republican politics evolves into once everyone in the Republican party understands that it is the future.
The answer isn’t likely to be pretty.