Sometime in 2023, Donald Trump will presumably make the most momentous decision by a single person affecting the fate of the Republican Party in decades.
He will decide whether to run for president again, and that will determine who’s the frontrunner (Trump, if he’s a go) and the contours of the race.
If Trump runs, he will, one assumes, blot out the sun. Everything will be about him — his record, his pronouncements, his animosities. Much of the conservative mass media will get on board, while the mainstream media — inadvertently aiding him, yet again — will be even more intensely hostile.
The choice between this and a more “normal” nomination battle is Trump’s alone.
Perhaps not since Dwight Eisenhower turned aside Harry Truman’s entreaties to run for president as a Democrat and threw his hat in the ring as a Republican has someone had such “yea or nay” influence over the nation’s politics.
Trump’s continued sway has been a boon to his most hardcore cadre, but it is a problem for Trumpism, at least if that term is to mean anything more than personal loyalty to him. In particular, his staying power risks overshadowing and distorting the development of the populist wing of the party, which should be about more than “Stop the Steal” and adherence to one man, even if that man has defied political gravity.
Trump lost last November and contributed more than his share to the Georgia Senate losses that have added trillions of dollars to what Joe Biden can plausibly spend.
He no longer has any formal power, whereas six months ago he could move aircraft carrier groups.
He’s off social media and is not nearly as omnipresent on traditional media as when he was holding impromptu press conferences on his way to Marine One.
And yet, his grip on the party has barely loosened, if at all.
Most important, he avoided the stigma of a loser by falsely claiming he really won.
He connected with his voters at a cultural level deeper than any of his policies, creating an enduring bond.
His voters still think he’s the only one who truly gets the threat from the left, and the only one willing to fight with the requisite ferocity.
Finally, they think Trump is being persecuted by social media companies and worry they could be next.
The lesson of the defenestration of Liz Cheney is that you can’t run headlong into these sentiments and expect to survive in leadership.
Mitch McConnell, who has made his disdain for Trump clear, has taken the more prudent course of declining to elaborate on his well-known views, and isn’t going anywhere.
But there’s no doubt that what it means to be a populist in the Trump mode is overly determined by Trump himself.
Until recently, Elise Stefanik was a moderate Republican from New York state. She became the alternative to Cheney for the party’s populists by toeing the line on Stop the Steal, an issue that isn’t liberal, conservative or populist, but pure Trump.
The Trump effect is stark in Ohio Republican politics. One would think Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, a featured speaker last year at an event of the populist policy shop American Compass, would have more populist credibility than Senate primary candidate Josh Mandel, a run-of-the-mill establishment Republican. Yet Gonzalez voted to impeach Trump, so Mandel is earning populist points by calling him a “traitor.”
On the other hand, another likely Senate candidate, J.D. Vance, who represents a sincere, thought-through populism, will have to answer for his lack of enthusiasm for Trump in 2016.
If Trump does decide to run, even if he’s less dominant than advertised, he’ll squeeze out potential candidates like Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who are most determined to run as his direct successors.
They, like most everyone else in the party, will have to hold their breath until Trump comes down one way or the other in 2023.
(Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.)
© 2021 by King Features Synd., Inc.