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10 Years Ago, The GOP Had No Future. Trump Changed That, But The Path Is Far From Certain

Donald Trump walks alone to be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead.

Watch the video for “Culture War,” a monologue version of this article followed by an interview with Conn Carroll, commentary editor for the Washington Examiner.

The electoral map of our country is changing: A lot of states that were once solidly red have become purple or blue in the last two decades.

Those who might not have noticed before definitely did in 2020; and even if you think last year’s result was caused more by radical last-minute changes in election laws, it’s still worth noting that those changes were only possible in the first place because so many states have indeed become purple or blue over the last two decades.

Not too long ago, Virginia was solidly red; today, its laws and its capital city are barely recognizable. Take a look at the governor’s race, where the Republican nominee is facing an opponent who is severely damaged by lobbying ties and a long sordid history, says he wants to lock down the citizenry basically in perpetuity for fear of disease, and lies routinely to attack gun owners. He says that in Virginia.

What has the Republican done in response? Has he met him on the field? Kind of, in that he’s shifted solidly towards the center. Regardless of how this somewhat disappointing race goes, it’s going to be very difficult for Republicans to win that state on the presidential level in three years.

North Carolina was also recently a Republican stronghold; today, it’s a toss-up. Georgia voted for George W. Bush by 17 points; last year, it went for Biden and gave us two Democratic senators.

While Democrats dream every year — and Republicans wring their hands every year — Texas is still red. Any look at the trends, however, shows neither the excitement nor the worry is without merit — through foreign and domestic immigration, as well as colleges and shifts in industry, Texas is changing — and it isn’t getting more Republican.

Arizona, the home of Sens. John McCain and Barry Goldwater, standard-bearer of the 1960s conservative revolution, is now purple. Colorado’s Republican ship is sunk under a blue wave, and it shows in the decay of its beautiful cities. Nevada has changed from red to blue; and New Mexico, which once simply leaned Democrat, is today thoroughly Democrat.

In 2000, Oregon only voted for Gore over Bush by 7,000 votes; today, the state is so insane that COVID laws are the only laws it bothers to enforce.

That’s not a good trend: As hostile as the GOP often is toward the right, the Republican Party is the only major vehicle for conservative ideas in this country, and has been for decades.

It’s not a good trend, but really it makes sense. Why wouldn’t the GOP be falling behind? They’ve been near-frozen for decades, shackled to a political ideology instead of being guided by a political philosophy.

Year after year the Democrats went further left, and in the process they abandoned large swathes of blue-collar union voters — the very people who had formed the backbone of the Democratic coalition. Despite that huge opportunity, the GOP made barely an effort to take up those voters’ issues — to become their new champions.

It didn’t take a prophet to look closely at 30 years of free trade orthodoxy and see that its critics had been right, that it hadn’t worked, that it had left the most vulnerable Americans behind; but the Republican ideology kept them from meeting blue-collar voters on that ground until very recently.

Similarly, the social conservatism and religious values of the party were discarded or merely given lip service by politicians, even though every single conservative outside of a deep-blue city knows those issues are the backbone of the GOP.

Activist courts seized the issue of marriage as a sacrament and buried what our consumerist culture had long before killed, relegating marriage to the economic, feel-good, and easily undone legal status it’s now enshrined as. Most Republican politicians were happy to have that fight behind them. “See!? Not our fault! Nothing we can do.”

The legal sacrifice of over 2,000 babies a day was similarly dismissed on the national level as more of the “lost culture war.” A matter for the courts. “So sorry, can’t do anything. Law of the land.”

Donald Trump changed all that. He attacked global free trade orthodoxy in public. He defended the lives of the unborn — and even described the awful reality of abortion — on a national debate stage in Nevada. And what did we see? Tremors in blue-collar states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Sure, these three had technically been competitive states, but every single year they always seemed to go Democrat by just a few points — until 2016.

Florida, a state whose voters had been wavering back and forth, stood still, and is possibly even moving to the right again. Ohio and Iowa, toss-ups in previous elections, started turning red as well.

And then, between vote-by-mail shenanigans; a foolish, Fauci-first COVID policy; and a re-election campaign that lacked any coherent message beyond “liberals are bad and unfair,” Trump lost in 2020.

In his absence from the White House and social media, the Republicans who ran on his name and message have slowly crawled back to the way they were before the great shake-up. While the left indoctrinates our children and creates a caste system based on which injections its subjects have had, Republicans smear Ronald Reagan’s name to explain their own cowardice and weakness.

As Joe Biden and his visor-clown secretary of defense thoroughly botch the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, turning it into a full-fledged humiliation, many in the GOP who paid lip-service to ending unending, objective-less wars are suddenly hawks again. Every illiterate tribesman with a new AK and a new apartment — perks of the new job — is a hardened al-Qaida operative. Get excited: Washington’s bipartisan war party is back, people!

But the voters aren’t there; the old GOP is over. Having now seen and voted for a candidate who says something different, out loud, there’s no going back.

For the first half of the 20th century, America’s elite thinkers convinced the country that there was no conservative intellectual tradition — it was just a collection of old fogies and progress-hating reactionaries. They were wrong, and men like Russell Kirk, Bill Buckley, Ronald Reagan and Goldwater proved that.

Today, they’re trying to do the same, claiming the populist right is just white rage and unprincipled reactionary racism. This is as false now as it was then — the only hollow authority in this equation is in their own rotten existence. And with thinkers and writers like Sohrab Ahmari, Mike Gonzalez, Ben Domenech, Tucker Carlson, Oren Cass, Mollie Hemmingway, Rachel Bovard, Matthew Peterson, David Azerrad, Michael Anton, and Christopher Rufo, and even with politicians like Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance and Blake Masters, populist conservatism isn’t just an angry impulse, it’s a political philosophy with real anchors.

Some of these anchors are recent figures, like Pat Buchanan; others are rooted firmly in the 20th century, with men like Robert Taft, the “Mr. Republican” of the ’40s and ’50s; and still others go all the way back to the U.S. Constitution and earlier.

This is the kind of party that can fill the gap created by the modern left. The new Democratic Party is increasingly elite, increasingly anti-middle class, increasingly anti-Christian, increasingly anti-American. It’s not just anti-white, but also increasingly anti-anyone-considered-white-adjacent, which includes a lot of Hispanics, Indians, Asians, and even black people if they hold the wrong views or own a business or attend the wrong church.

There are promising signs this gap is being filled by the GOP. Trump lost last year because he shed support from the working-class white voters he picked up in 2016, but he did gain with Hispanics — especially those who most resemble traditional GOP voting blocs: Rural farmers in South Texas, suburbanites in Florida, weekly churchgoers across the country. It turns out they don’t like riots and critical race theory and outsourcing either.

Last week, NBC released a poll asking Republican voters who they considered themselves more a supporter of Donald Trump or the GOP. The former president took 40 percent, compared to the GOP’s 50 — his lowest score yet.

That’s a positive sign for the Republican Party; no ideology can survive if it’s entirely tethered to one man. But this won’t stay positive if the GOP uses that poll as an excuse to fall back into its old ways — the ideological habits that brought the party so low in the first place. The party will thrive without Donald Trump if — and only if — they take his 2016 message and carry it forward, as Gov. Ron DeSantis has done in Florida.

Of course, Trump has already released his first campaign ad for 2024, so the most influential Republican in the room might be back before he’s gone. Regardless of what happens in terms of people, the paths to a lasting national Republican Party are treacherous and few.

The next presidential election aside, if they’re to still win elections in 2028 or 2032, they need to become the kind of party America’s working and middle classes caught a glimpse of in 2016; the kind of party that, if done right, won’t just defend its existing states but can even turn the tables in a state like, say, Connecticut.

A few years ago, I gave a speech to a GOP club in that beautiful New England state. I was their guest and had a lovely evening in a tony little town on the Atlantic. Then, as now, extremely wealthy towns on the Atlantic were the last enclaves of the Connecticut Republican Party, and all around us to our north and our east lay mile after mile of solid, working-class blue.

I told them during dinner that if this experiment works, they will see that map reversed: a tiny island of blue elites clinging to the rocks amid a sea of red. They took it surprisingly well; they were tired of losing. And so are we.