Time for Trump to start thinking about his legacy
The Trumpian grip on the Republican Party slackened ever so slightly this past week. Kris Kobach's loss in the Kansas Senate primary was a setback for immigration hardliners in what should have been a banner year in fortress America.
The coronavirus gave President Trump an excuse to bar — really bar, not just gesture toward — foreign travel to the U.S., which he did. But the effect will be ephemeral, fading when a vaccine is developed or herd immunity takes hold.
Kobach, a champion of stricter immigration controls, was defeated by Rep. Roger Marshall, a sock puppet of moneyed national Republican groups. With Kobach's serial failure to win an election, and the boat racing of Jeff Sessions's bid to retake his Senate seat thanks to the president's personal grudge, populists are back on their heels. The famed border wall remains incomplete in the twilight of Trump's first term. Two reliable votes on border security have, in a twist of depressive humor, been banned from emigrating to Washington. Curt Mills reports: "[A] clear effect of the dual defeat of Kobach and Sessions, beyond depriving immigration hawks of sentinels in the Senate, will be to (relatively) moderate the likely immigration policy of the 2024 Republican primary."
The setback on restrictionism represents a larger failure of America First to take root in the GOP. Immigration has always been a sticking point within the Republican coalition. Now it's losing its electoral oomph. Combined with Trump's shaky odds at re-election, the flagging of populism as a political force is giving Republican elites a hopeful vision: a return to normalcy.
The Republican Party's pre-Trump operative arrangement was Wall Street-friendly lawmakers unconcerned with culture-war skirmishes, elected by a nationalist-inclined, socially conservative base. Run-of-the-mill Republican voters wanted pride in their country and gay "sex" education out of schools; instead, Goldman Sachs got a tax cut, and a fraction of the savings were donated to the Human Rights Campaign.
Trump was a challenge to business as usual, but his populist inclinations look more like a golden flash in the pan than a changing of the guard. For the ever-scheming political class, the 2020 election is already outmoded. Sure, they'll go through the rotations of seeing it out, if only to keep the pay stubs coming, but the real money is beyond President Biden or President Trump part deux. The consultant chislers, lobbying barons, and P.R. sophisticates are already fixing their gaze on the next lucrative horizon: 2024.
Between this November and then, a long-due reckoning within the GOP will transpire. And not a fake reckoning over race or transgenderism or any other liberal hobby horse that are all really just euphemisms for shoving tolerance down reluctant throats. No, an actual reconciliation will need to happen — one between the interests of the party base and their chosen representatives.
There will be no roundtable discussion among Mitch McConnell, Sean Hannity, the president of the Heritage Foundation, the retired head of the Chippewa County Republican Party, and an Idaho plumber who's voted straight-ticket red since high school. Control of the party's ideological affinity will play out where it always does: the presidential primary.
Party operatives are already hopecasting their future presidential preferences. Their dream candidates show an uninspiring return to form. Frequently mentioned potentials include former governor Nikki Haley and senators Marco Rubio and Tim Scott. Tucker Carlson is also named, though mainly as a kingmaker from his Fox throne. The hype compasses candidates seen as a repudiation of Trump: well spoken, moderate, respectable. They're also decidedly not white. Tokenism is the coin of the identity-politics realm, and Republican apparatchiks have foolishly adopted the currency. There's a real belief in these professional circles that pointing to Senator Rubio, shouting, "Hey, there's our Hispanic candidate. See, we aren't racist after all!" will inoculate the party against charges of bigotry.
Playing by the Democrats' slanderous standards never really wins. To paraphrase Orwell, those who control the framing control the debate. And controlling the debate means planting a plethora of rhetorical mines. GOP heelers would rather stay on the field, tromping on buried traps, than take their cues from the people who actually cast ballots.
The Republican establishment desperately wants to take the party back to its status quo ante, before a churlish Manhattanite mogul took the reins. The latest primary results show they're succeeding. Trump should start considering if the recrudescence of corporate Bushism is really the legacy he wants to leave behind. "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin," is written on the White House walls. The Medes and the Persians — meaning the Bill Kristols and the Chamber of Commerce — are spoiling for the fall of America First. Trump needs a true-believing Daniel, someone who really understands the hopes and desires of the middle-class Republican voter, to take charge after his tenure.
Who will it be?