Following an election mired in chaos and confusion, this at least is clear: Donald Trump’s political career will soon be coming to an end, but Trumpism – his inchoate brand of conservative populism – is here to stay.
The narrative would surely be different had Trump lost in the resounding landslide foreseen by professional pundits and pollsters. In that universe, the president and everything he represents would have been repudiated, creating an immense temptation for the Republican party to revert back to its lily-white, elite-driven comfort zone.
Instead, Trump defied expectations by winning the largest share of non-white voters of any Republican since 1960. This ranged from modest gains among African American men, to major swings in party preference within working-class Latino communities – and not just in Miami-Dade, where Cuban-American turnout helped secure Florida for Trump while unseating two Democratic incumbents. In Starr county, Texas, for example, Biden beat Trump by five points down from Hillary Clinton’s 60 – a 55-point swing in a border town that’s 95% Hispanic and which has a median income of only $17,000.
The Missouri senator Josh Hawley, a rising star within the GOP’s populist faction, was quick to offer his interpretation on Twitter. “Republicans in Washington are going to have a very hard time processing this,” he wrote. “But the future is clear: we must be a working class party, not a Wall Street party.”
The Florida senator Marco Rubio concurred. “#Florida & the Rio Grande Valley showed the future of the GOP: A party built on a multi-ethnic multi-racial coalition of working AMERICANS.”
Ironically enough, the primary demographic Trump lost relative to 2016 was non-college-educated white men. A key factor seems to have been the Biden campaign’s strategic positioning on issues that resonate with rust belt voters – from a “Buy America” plan so supercharged that it made Steve Bannon blush, to tax incentives for manufacturers that reshore. Thus even in defeat, the ideas behind Trumpism were on some level victorious.
All that said, the gap between Trumpism in theory and practice remains enormous. Despite campaigning on a rejection of conservative economic orthodoxies in 2016, once in office Trump pursued an agenda of tax cuts and deregulation that was almost comically conventional. And by the final days of the 2020 campaign, Trump scarcely talked about policy at all, much less his core issues of trade and immigration.
Trump’s narrow loss thus marks the beginning of an internal struggle for the soul of American conservatism. Many in the Republican party long for a return to the socially moderate, fiscal conservatism of a bygone era. Others, like Hawley and Rubio, are calling upon their peers to embrace the working-class realignment that Trump grasped at an intuitive level, even as he failed in execution.
Between deindustrialization and the steady exodus of college-educated voters to the Democratic party, the Republican party’s shift toward the working class has been decades in the making. A similar trend can be seen elsewhere, too, from Boris Johnson’s blue-collar supporters, to the unabashedly pro-union platform of Erin O’Toole, the newly minted leader of the Conservative party of Canada.
The main difference in the US case has been the failure, if not outright resistance, of the Republican party’s political machinery to adapt in real time. Indeed, for all of Trump’s capacity for disruption, he was no match against the institutional edifice of the so-called “conservative movement” – the dozens of free-market thinktanks, law firms and leadership organizations that were called upon to staff his administration and define his agenda.
So while the notion of the Republican party becoming a multiethnic working-class coalition may seem farcical now, the longer-term trend speaks for itself. The only question is whether the party’s elite will continue to deny this reality, or take the next four years to rebuild and realign conservative institutions to better reflect the actual interests of their rank and file.