After Trump: Can the GOP sell itself as the party of the working class?

"The future of the [Republican] party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial working class coalition." and that, “...the free market exists to serve our people. Our people don’t exist to serve the free market.”

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Image Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Last Saturday, thousands of supporters of the outgoing American president, many of them wearing silly uniforms and waving ridiculous banners and flags, converged on Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. for the ambitiously named Million MAGA March. After a rally, they walked to the Supreme Court and ended the day with speeches from the likes of ‘former’ Qanon believer and incoming Georgia congresswoman, Marjorie Taylor Greene.

The presence of a smaller number of counter demonstrators along the way almost guaranteed there would be scuffles and, in the end, there were at least 20 arrests for a variety of offenses, including assaults and violations of local gun laws. Several stabbings also that occurred that night.

Although some videos of the events of the day were deceptively edited by far right provocateurs like Andy Ngo to make the counter protesters look like the violent ones, footage of ‘Proud Boys’ and others stealing signs from elderly people, shoving and punching those exercising the same 1st Amendment rights they often claim to defend and attacking journalists, muted the usual arguments that ‘both sides do it’.

Just as in Charlottesville, Berkeley and Portland over the last four years, the bullying right were not the victims they so often try to portray themselves as.

It does at present seem that these often highly confrontational Trump supporters will at some point have to accept the results of the November 3rd election, regardless of their hurt feelings. With court cases challenging the results in a number of states being struck down and even ridiculed by the lower courts, the only way to change the outcome seems to be a constitutional coup with GOP controlled states choosing to ignore the results in President elect Biden’s favor and sending pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College, overriding the will of the people.

Barring the type of crisis that would be provoked by such a betrayal, now may be a good time to look ahead and try to figure out what the outgoing president’s loss will mean for Trumpism as a political movement and which others might try to take up the mantle of the right-wing populism he rode to triumph in the 2016 U.S. elections.

First, there is the possibility that Trump himself or one of his family members will run in 2024. While the former idea has been floated since a Biden victory became increasingly likely in the days after the election, his niece, Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist who released a tell all book earlier this year, said in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo that another run after losing is unlikely because her uncle wouldn’t be able to accept a second such failure, “He can keep telling everyone that he really won the 2020 election and it was stolen from him by fraud (and he will, ad nauseam), but the prospect of yet another loss would be too frightening.”

His eldest daughter, Ivanka, who has been working in the White House throughout his administration could conceivably test the political waters in the years ahead, but, aside from using public speeches to praise her father, doesn’t really seem to have a knack for providing his base with the kind of self pitying, racist red meat that garnered the failed real estate developer such a cult like following.

Better at this kind of messaging and seemingly adored by the MAGA crowd is Don Jr., a child of obvious privilege like his father before him, who has become adept at stoking the grievances of the mainly white middle class voters who make up the Trump base and uses social media more creatively than his father. Besides a seeming indifference to actual policy on par with Trump Sr., also working against Trump Jr. in terms of winning over the all important Republican donor class is that his public appearances are often almost comically hyperactive, leading some to question whether he’s using some kind of stimulant.

Just as his father does, Don Jr. tries to project conjectures like these back onto perceived enemies, telling Fox & Friends that those wondering about his mannerisms after his unhinged speech at the Republican convention on August 24th, “…have me confused with Hunter Biden.”

Barring a family led legacy, what other options are now being quietly forwarded to the MAGA crowd by a Republican Party desperate to hold onto Trump voters on the road to 2024?

One rhetorical difference between the outgoing president’s populism and the more traditional conservatism of the Republican Party, at least until 2016, is the way it draws on vaguely left wing sounding appeals to working people. Trump’s excoriation of ‘the Establishment’, especially in media, and his attacks on trade deals supported by most of his own party and the Democratic opposition could probably be overheard at a Bernie Sanders rally during either of the last two Democratic primaries. One big difference was that these arguments were deployed alongside somewhat contradictory calls to national pride central to the MAGA brand, creating a potent mix that helped him win more than 73 million votes on November 3rd.

Rhetorical outreach to working people aside, point by point, if we look at the accomplishments of the outgoing administration, besides historic court packing, there’s very little besides rhetoric to separate his record from those of earlier Republican presidents.

Further, we’ve seen that almost half of Republicans support Medicare for All but still voted for Trump in 2020, perhaps believing his repeated promises of a much better plan for all his fellow citizens that has never materialized. Instead his administration has tried to use the Supreme Court to overturn the whole of the Affordable Care Act which, flawed as it is, offers some protection to the country’s most vulnerable, including those with preexisting medical conditions.

Almost unremarked upon in the press, which has been preoccupied with the election and raging pandemic, one of the outgoing president’s opponents in the 2016 primary, ‘little’ Marco Rubio, has begun to try to portray himself as a populist. The Florida senator has been making these themes more coherent in recent months, telling Alayna Treene ofAxios, “The future of the [Republican] party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial working class coalition.” and that, “…the free market exists to serve our people. Our people don’t exist to serve the free market.”

Going against Republican orthodoxy, in a move that he will probably try to use to establish his bonafides as a champion of the working class, it was Rubio, “who actually worked with Democrats to create a payroll support program that temporarily saved millions of jobs over the summer.”

The problem for Florida senator may be that he simply looks and talks too much like a standard politician for this strategy to work as it did for an outsider like Trump or, even more likely, that he’ll be overshadowed by others who have been assiduously building these arguments for years, like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.

Carlson, one of the few Fox opinion personalities who occasionally criticizes the outgoing president, has been rumored to be considering his own run in 2024 and poses as an anti-corporatist conservative on the network every weeknight despite being the heir to a frozen food fortune and relying on many of the same corporate interests he claims to oppose to advertise on his show.

Only time will tell, but there’s one potential 2024 candidate who really manages to bridge the worlds of Trump’s populism and traditional Republicanism: Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. Cotton, a veteran of his country’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ticks a lot of boxes for both groups.

As Steve Bannon told the New Yorker in 2017, in regards to the Arkansas senator, “How many guys in town can give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations and also get kudos in the pages of Breitbart? The answer is, one guy.”

Cotton, more than most of his Senate colleagues has also gone further in terms of echoing the outgoing president’s calls for a ‘law and order’ approach to protests like those that followed the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. He even called in a June opinion piece in the New York Times for the military to be deployed to the streets of many of the country’s cities to quell the Black Lives Matter protests that followed their deaths.

“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” he wrote in the piece, that caused an uproar at the paper of record leading to the resignation of the opinion page editor.

Other contenders might include Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, but these senators may rely too much on religious conservatives who really have nowhere else to go regardless of who wins the party’s nomination in 2024.

If nothing else, it should now be clear to American progressives that Trumpism in some form is likely to remain a factor in American politics for some time. Effectively countering populist economic arguments from the right (who don’t really believe them) will be key to growing the progressive movement and keeping any heir to Trumpism from reaching the nation’s highest office where a more competent person than the outgoing president could do even more damage in the United States and abroad.

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