If Donald Trump stages a come-from-behind victory in November, the Republican Party will become an oddity for the Trump Organization: the only entity it owns but does not brand.
Not only will he remain in office for another term, but the Trumpers will also dominate the GOP for another generation. Look for Tom Cotton to be the likely nominee in 2024.
And if Trump loses? Then the future of the party will be up for grabs. Much depends on the margin of defeat. If it’s razor-thin and comes down to a vote-count dispute in a single state, Trump will almost surely allege fraud, claim victory and set off a constitutional crisis. As Ohio State law professor Edward Foley noted last year, a state like Pennsylvania could send competing certificates of electoral votes to Congress. Interpretive ambiguities in the 12th Amendment and the Electoral Count Act of 1887 could deadlock the House and the Senate. We could have two self-declared presidents on the eve of next year’s inauguration.
But let’s assume Trump loses narrowly but indisputably. In that case, the Trump family will do what it can to retain control of the GOP.
Tommy Hicks Jr., the current Republican National Committee co-chairman, is one possible candidate to move up to become chairman and run the RNC, but the likelier choice is Hicks’ good friend Donald Trump Jr. The Trumpers will make the argument that NeverTrumpers cost them the election and are thus responsible for everything bad that might happen in a Biden administration, from crime on the streets to liberal Supreme Court picks.
Something unpleasant might come of this. It tends to happen whenever a large mass of conformists convince themselves that they’ve been betrayed by a nonconforming minority in their midst.
Then there’s the third scenario: An overwhelming and humiliating Trump defeat, on the order of George H.W. Bush’s 370-168 electoral vote loss to Bill Clinton in 1992.
The infighting will begin the moment any must-win state for Trump is called for Joe Biden. It will pit two main camps against each other, the What Were We Thinking? side of the party and the Trump Didn’t Go Far Enough side. Think of it as a cage match between Marco Rubio and Tucker Carlson.
Both sides will recognize that Trump was a uniquely incompetent executive. Both will want to wash their hands of the soon-to-be-former president, his relatives, their intellectual vacuity and their self-dealing ways. And both will have to tread carefully around a hurt and bitter man who, like a minefield laid for some long-ago war, still has the power to kill anyone who missteps.
That’s where agreement ends. The What Were We Thinking? Republicans will want to hurry the party back to some version of what it was when Paul Ryan was its star. They’ll want to pretend that Trump never happened. They will organize a task force composed of former party worthies to write an election post-mortem, akin to what then-GOP chairman Reince Priebus did after 2012, emphasizing the need to repair relations with minorities, women and younger voters. They’ll talk up the virtues of Republicans as reformers and problem-solvers, not Know-Nothings and culture warriors.
The Didn’t Go Far Enough camp will make the opposite case. They’ll note that Trump never built the wall, never got U.S. troops out of the Middle East, never drained the swamp of Beltway corruption, ended NAFTA in name only, did Wall Street’s bidding at Main Street’s expense, and “owned the libs” on Twitter while losing the broader battle of ideas. This camp will seek a new champion: Trump plus a brain.
These are two deeply unattractive versions of the party of Lincoln, one feckless, the other fanatical. Even so, all who care about the health of U.S. democracy should hold their noses and hope the feckless side prevails.
As with the Democrats after Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980, it will probably take more than one electoral shellacking for conservative-leaning voters to appreciate the scale of disaster that Trump’s presidency inflicted on the party and the country. It will probably also take more than one defeat for the party to learn that electoral contests should still be waged, and won, near the center of the ideological spectrum, not the fringe.
A decisive Trump loss in November isn’t a sufficient condition for the GOP to begin to heal itself but it’s a beginning.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.