“If a battle cannot be won, do not fight it.” — Sun Tzu
That is a lesson Donald Trump never seemed to learn. Trumpism contains some electoral and policy opportunities for the national and Minnesota Republican Party, but only if Trump’s unending penchant for conflict is abandoned as the party’s operating premise. That requires the party to gradually move beyond Trump.
The GOP needs to manage that transition to retain the electoral and policy benefits of Trumpism without suffering the consequences of Trump’s abrasive personality. It ensnared him in many battles he could not win and should not have waged. Four major losses characterized his term in the White House.
War with the media
Trump’s first defeat came at the hands of the national political media. Trump’s war with the media was epic in scope and produced perhaps the most negative media coverage that any president has experienced over the course of his term. His assertive personality, evident in frequent declarations via talk and tweet about “fake news,” produced an unending avalanche of negative media coverage. The president fought a media battle he could not win.
Failure to broaden appeal
A second battle bringing defeat for Trump was his embrace of dubious fellow combatants espousing odd conspiracy theories or engaging in thuggish tactics. It was a disreputable crowd that aided the president little with the broader public. Trump failed to join virtually all other prominent national Republicans in denouncing QAnon, a far-right group claiming that a global pedophile ring was plotting against Trump. He told the Proud Boys, a violent gang of rightist extremists, to “stand back and stand by” during the urban riots of 2020.
The far-right groups the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers, along with the Proud Boys, appeared at Trump rallies after the 2020 election and urged Trump to use force to prevail in postelection controversies. Trump consorted with allies who lacked credibility with the political mainstream, hobbling his attempt to broaden his appeal throughout his presidency – a competitive loss for him in his battles with political enemies.
Dysfunctional White House
A third battle Trump lost was in bringing order to his White House operation. The staff turnover in his administration was extraordinary. A Brookings Institution analysis by political scientist Kathryn Dunn Tenpas found that his administration had the highest turnover of “A team” staff in the executive office of the president of any chief executive since Jimmy Carter. This resulted from his inexperience in politics and governance, perhaps fueled by his omnipresent ego. Trump’s mercurial and choleric temperament resulted in four White House chiefs of staff in four years and his public castigation of officials who left the administration. Failure to bring functional order to the White House ill equipped Trump for the many other battles he prosecuted.
Trump’s reelection defeat was a fourth battle lost. His mistakes here were multiple. First, he failed to create and focus on an agenda for a second term that might reassure and give citizens hope amid the COVID pandemic. Second, his campaign suffered from staff difficulties at the top. Third, his campaign failed to contest early on the many exceptions to voting laws pursued by many interests and individuals hostile to the president that increased turnout against him. Fourth, Trump’s singular focus on energizing his base – through rallies flouting virus restrictions and involving lengthy self-indulgent presidential talks – did little to win over key suburban, moderate and independent voters essential to victory. Fifth, his campaign was unprepared for postelection challenges and engaged in many controversial legal and organizing strategies culminating in the January 6 Capitol riot. In all, five miscues leading to defeat.
Trump is primarily responsible for the loss of these battles. The task for the Republican Party now is to incorporate Trumpism into a broader coalition. The big impediment to that, however, is the querulous Trump himself. Since leaving the White House, he has assailed prominent Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Karl Rove, threatened electoral retribution on the congressional GOPers who voted for his second impeachment and conviction, and has demanded that Republican Party fundraising organizations cease and desist from using his name in their communications.
A former Trump White House official described to Politico reporters his post-term behavior: “He only cares about maintaining his power and his stranglehold over the Republican Party and it doesn’t matter to him how any of the moves he makes affect the long-term success of institutions or individuals other than himself.” To the extent that Trump devotes himself to waging war within his own party, the broader coalition the party must assemble becomes impossible to put together.
It would be a mistake to understate the importance of the intraparty divisions Trump has created. Jennifer DeJournett, a Republican operative in Minnesota in an interview with journalist Patrick Condon, described the divide in her state party that resembles the split in the national party as well:
“You have the people who want the ‘stunt’ politics. That’s more of the grassroots, die-hard crowd; they really got to try it on for size in the Trump era and they realized they liked it. The second type is the nonpolitically active Republican voter. You’re most likely to find them in the suburbs. Those guys don’t like ‘stunt’ politics. So I think we’re going to keep having trouble in the suburbs if we stick with ‘stunt’ politics.”
The more Trump remains central to the GOP, the more difficult bridging that divide becomes. Trump made his career as a celebrity”‘stunt” artist, an act he continued in the White House with bilious tweets, a red MAGA hat, maskless rallies amid COVID and postelection rabble-rousing.
The party needs to become a party that is Trumpist – appealing to the white working class on trade, more conservative Hispanics, Asians and African Americans on cultural and economic issues – without Trump still leading it and continuing to alienate educated white suburban voters.
The sad fate of the national and Minnesota Republican Party is that it cannot prosper without Trumpism but also cannot prosper with Trump. The party, unlike Trump, must pick its battles wisely.
Steven Schier is the Emeritus Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield.
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