Former President Donald Trump is running for president again, seeking the nomination of a party which, for the first time in six years, isn’t wholly sure it wants him back. What the GOP base decides remains a wholly open question; Trump is still the only candidate officially on offer, and history teaches polling this early in the race is useless. But the sort of Republican voter who airs his opinion in the pages of The New York Times and National Review has decided, emphatically, that the time for Trump is over.
This may seem like a promising development to any libertarians waxing nostalgic about an earlier era of libertarian-Republican relations—a time when libertarianism was deemed, in Reason‘s pages, “the very heart and soul of conservatism,” when the GOP’s rhetorical commitment to limited government made it libertarians’ preferred vehicle for political action within the two-party system, when yawning gaps between libertarians and Republicans on social and foreign policy were ignored because, uhhh, you know, communism! Taxes!
So if the Republican Party finally rejects Trump, is that also a rejection of the authoritarian and illiberal impulses his political career has amplified? I’m open to being pleasantly surprised, but so far, the evidence answers with a resounding “no.” Even if Trump loses this primary race, there’s every reason to think his party will retain its present will to power.
At The Bulwark this week, Jonathan V. Last documented a telling contrast between Republicans’ rationales for rejecting Trump now and their original objections to his candidacy in 2015 and 2016. Back then, GOP critiques of Trump were grounded in language about policy and governing principles or personal character, or both. Now the repudiation is openly transactional: Trump loses, and Republicans don’t want to lose.
In 2015, for example, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” and cast a skeptical eye on Trump’s promises to “take all the problems of the world and put ’em in a box and make your life better.” He didn’t bother to spell it out, but the implication was clear: That promise was empty because it’s not the sort of promise the government can fulfill.
Early the next year, before his pathetic “small hands” line, Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) likewise wondered at “people that are lifelong conservatives, or at least claim to be, who don’t seem to care that Donald Trump has never been and is not now a conservative on principles.”
And National Review editorialized that “Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones,” bemoaning his lack of interest in limited government and his “obsession …with ‘winning.'”
That kind of argument is no longer at the fore. Last quotes former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie this month lamenting that Republicans “keep losing and losing and losing” and blaming those losses completely on Trump.
After this year’s midterms losses for the GOP, “[w]hatever purpose [Trump] was meant to serve—bringing working-class voters back to the Republican fold; restoring nationalism to conservative ideology; rejecting the authority of supposed experts—has been served,” argued Bret Stephens at The New York Times in a hopeful hypothesis of where primary voters will land. “Others can now do the same thing better, without the drama and divisiveness. He’s yesterday’s man.”
National Review‘s editors, once again categorically anti-Trump for the primaries, perfected the pivot to an obsession with winning of their very own. Their new editorial highlighted Trump’s self-sabotage as president, his “narrow defeat to [sic] a feeble Joe Biden in 2020 in what was a winnable race,” his “eminently defeatable” endorsees in 2022, and the Republican Party’s overall loss of reputation, position, and power under his leadership. Reject Trump, the article argued, because you can do better. You can have a Republican who wins.
While National Review did gesture, briefly, to policy specifics, some of them in the pre-2016 style of Republican priorities, the broader hostility toward Trump for 2024 is not concerned with returning to those old orthodoxies. The argument is not: He loses, and therefore we can’t limit government, cut taxes, reduce debt, slash needless regulation, and so on. It’s rather: He loses, and therefore we can’t wield the power of an expansive federal government to “reward friends and punish enemies.”
Particularly if we get another crowded field in 2024, it’s possible some primary contenders will retain that older meta-stance on the scale and scope of the state. Whether they’ll be viable, however, is another question.
The buzziest likely challenger to Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is of the new authoritarian bent. Former Vice President Mike Pence, having already served as Trump’s second-in-command, is clearly at least comfortable with it. Trump may no longer be the candidate best suited to advance the Republican Party’s increasingly illiberal agenda, but that doesn’t mean the agenda has been abandoned. If anything, leaving behind its nursemaid may be a sign of its maturity.