Although President Donald Trump could lose his bid for re-election on Tuesday night, top officials in both parties are bracing for a world in which he and the brand of politics he unleashed remain a predominant force for the foreseeable future.
Trumpism as a movement has redefined the political landscape in ways that few operatives believe is reversible. The president and his team have plans to try and make it as difficult as possible for former Vice President Joe Biden to undo their accomplishments, should Biden emerge victorious on Tuesday. And, perhaps most notably, Trump has privately signaled that he has no desire to leave the stage quietly in defeat.
The president has talked with aides about potentially continuing rallies after the election, a source familiar with the planning said. He has recently joked with others about running again in 2024 in the event he is a one-termer, and also to see media, Democrats, and “RINO” heads explode, according to two people who’ve heard him say so. Even absent another presidential run, his top congressional and political allies and family members seem poised to inherit the movement that he has birthed.
Collectively, those factors point to the most stubborn of potential outcomes on Tuesday: a political universe that has just gone through a massive tectonic shift, but with the same protagonist at its center.
“If Trumpism is just nasty tweets, then fine. That won’t endure,” said Joe Grogan, formerly a top domestic policy adviser to Trump. “But directionally, he’s reshaped the Republican Party. And the country.”
No institution seems more likely to reflect the impact of Trump—even in the wake of a possible defeat—than the Republican Party itself.
For all of his platitudes about Ronald Reagan, Trump succeeded in vanquishing much of what remained of the Gipper’s GOP. A party once organized around the principles of limited government, public morality, and foreign military intervention has been wholly subsumed by a president who rails against free trade, criticizes efforts to reform U.S. entitlement programs, vows to withdraw U.S. troops from both hostile and allied nations, and shells out six-figure hush-money payments to his mistresses.
“The populist wave that allowed Donald Trump to overrun the Republican Party and powered him to the presidency isn’t showing any signs of ebbing—with or without him in the White House,” said Republican strategist Colin Reed. “After beginning to percolate in the early years of the Obama era, the movement found its vessel to relevance when Trump burst on the scene in 2015. The days of a GOP that stands for free trade, open borders, and internationalism are less likely to return than a party that splits into multiple factions.”
The full scale of the shift was evident in Georgia this year, where two Republicans vying for one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins, competed to prove who was the more committed Trump backer. They did so by lavishing praise on Trump, of course, but they also made the president’s antagonists their own. They each alleged that their opponent was secretly allied with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT)—the sole GOP vote to convict the president during impeachment—around whom nearly every Republican in the country had rallied just eight years earlier when he ran for president.
The same shift was evident in other bastions of Obama-era GOP political power. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, once one of the most powerful political and advocacy outfits on the political right, has found itself a lobby without a political home. After breaking with Trump on key issues such as trade and immigration, the chamber did the previously unthinkable this year: It endorsed a slate of Democrats. The group’s political chief quit shortly thereafter. “I can no longer be part of this institution as it moves left,” he said.
Trump fans have viewed this all as a case of the party’s id finally being allowed to show.
“Trump’s rise in the Republican Party was always just a reflection of the views of Republican voters,” said Andrew Surabian, a GOP strategist and a former official in the Trump White House. “That’s why he won the GOP nomination in such a commanding fashion in the first place.”
But elsewhere, graybeards in the party have made notable shifts that suggest they too see the image and build of the GOP as being irrevocably altered. John Feehery, a former top aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and a longtime lobbyist and television commenter, told The Daily Beast that he no longer considered himself a part of the GOP establishment, which he described as the “C Suite” and “McKinsey folks” who “lack humanity.”
Asked if he was being opportunistic, Feehery replied: “I haven’t made a lot of money on this. The opportunistic ones are those who work for the Lincoln Project [the Republican Never Trump group]. They’re the ones who turned their backs on the party, their voters, their families.”
Feehery and others in the GOP tent aren’t the only ones who see permanency in what Trump has done. Among Trump operatives and advisers, there is a belief that much of the president’s political accomplishments themselves will be difficult to reverse. The impact is best seen in the judiciary, where Trump has had a historic run of nominating and confirming judges and justices. Those operatives and advisers are also convinced the more aggressive immigration policies, including the building of sections of the border wall, will prove trickier to undo. The same goes for some of the president’s foreign policy wins, such as opening a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, a move that Trump still routinely boasts about in the closing days of his re-election campaign.
“President Trump’s legacy is set,” declared Steven Groves, who worked as a lawyer and then as a spokesman in the Trump White House. “He has protected the southern border with a wall that will be there for a long, long time, he reshaped the federal judiciary including three Supreme Court justices, he defeated the ISIS caliphate, and created the Space Force. Unlike President Obama’s accomplishments, Trump’s have shaped the nation and they are almost impossible to reverse or undo.”
Those who have been on the front lines fighting against Trump’s agenda push back on the idea that the policy gains are irreversible—though the revamping of the judiciary would be a major undertaking. What they do concede is that there is no immediate future in which the politics that Trump utilized are somehow not a factor.
Indeed, within Democratic circles, there is a growing fear that—should Biden be elected—he will underestimate the degree to which Trump will agitate against a Biden presidency from the outside: egging on congressional Republicans and rallying Trump supporters from a variety of media bullhorns.
“I think there will be a group of dead-enders searching for bipartisanship for at least a little while,” said Adam Jentleson, a former top adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). “But even for those folks there is not enough sustenance in the land to sustain them for very long.”
The problem, as Jentleson diagnosed it, is the incentive structure built into politics that would compel Republicans to court Trump’s blessing, even with Trump in White House exile. He has shown them a roadmap to securing the presidency with just 45 or so percent of the vote. And rather than revamping the playbook—and angering a large chunk of that 45 percent—they would be inclined to try and duplicate it.
“If elections are decided with 45 percent,” Jentleson said, “it is often enough to elect the craziest son of a bitch in the room.”
On this front, even disaffected Republicans agree. Sarah Isgur, a former top communications official in the Trump Justice Department under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, told The Daily Beast on Monday that she left the Republican Party after departing the administration.
“Whether in three days or in three years, the Republican Party will have to grapple with the basic question: Does the GOP exist without Trump? Not his message, not his policies, but Trump himself… It’s like asking if the John Wick franchise works without Keanu Reeves,” Isgur said. “The GOP can’t go backward because they’ve lost all credibility on spending and limited government, but there’s also no obvious path forward because they coalesced around Trump the Candidate, not Trump the Coherent Set of Policy Goals and Political Principles that can be carried on by the next guy.”