Four years after the Trump debacle, can Republicans finally return to the White House?
Washington, DC – 21 August 2020:
With less than three months to go before Americans return to the polls, President Hillary Clinton faces a surprisingly difficult re-election campaign. This would have been hard to believe in 2016. In that race, the President won a historic victory, becoming the first woman to be elected President of the United States. Against the deeply-negative message, self-inflicted wounds, and politically-compromised campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump, the result was Democratic control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate.
While the President achieved a plurality – rather than a majority – of the popular vote, she won decisively in the Electoral College. As Trump had insinuated months beforehand, he complained loudly of a ‘rigged’ result. But the only confirmed irregularities came from his supporters, many of whom sought to intimidate Clinton voters. President HIllary Clinton – the second President Clinton – took office in January 2017. She moved quickly, following her electoral victories with impressive legislative successes in education, health care, and tax reform. And despite sometimes sharp disagreements with the boisterous Sanders wing of the party, especially over her muscular – if less interventionist – foreign policy, she managed to keep the party unified. All the while, the economy has continued to grow steadily.
The President’s impact on the Supreme Court was especially important. Immediately after taking office, she filled the seat left vacant by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in early 2016. Against protests from the political Left, she chose to nominate Merrick Garland. Justice Garland had earlier been proposed by President Obama, but the Republican Senators refused to hold confirmation hearings. In addition, President Clinton selected replacements for Justices Ginsburg (2017), Kennedy (2018), and Breyer (2019). The last President to make so many changes was Ronald Reagan, over two terms. The new Justices – Srinivasan, Millett, and Watford – gave the liberal wing of the court a 6-3 edge. Perhaps most importantly, Citizens United was effectively overturned in 2018.
So how is the current race so close?
To start with, the expected Republican reflection on the losses of 2016 was short-lived and superficial. The absence of a recognized party leader, especially one as flawed as Trump, at once exonerated the faithful and removed any specific loyalty test for its factions to remain in good standing. Most importantly, Democratic control of the national executive, judiciary, and legislature immediately provided conservatives of all stripes with a natural rallying point. Something similar happened to Presidents Clinton and Obama; a burst of enthusiastic enactments were achieved at the cost of congressional control.
In fact, having been beaten so badly at the ballot box, Republicans’ were unburdened by either the successful passage or obstruction of legislation. There was little to credit or blame the party for. Ironically, a party that had only just nominated a candidate seemingly without principle, supported by a leadership – the ‘Vichy Republicans’ – that had largely capitulated to that demagogue despite the obvious dangers to the nation, now sold itself as principled. No one would’ve believed this four years ago.
The Republican Party reunited quickly across 2017-2018. #NeverTrump Republicans and Ted Cruz conservatives, many of whom had voted for Evan McMullian, were quickly re-enlisted. For a large group of these so-called ‘conscience conservatives’, time revealed that they’d objected more to Trump-the-messenger than to Trump’s message. Limited-government Republicans who had voted for the Libertarian Party – they achieved an impressive 12% of the vote – were also easily accommodated as allies against a common enemy. And the Democratic Party’s successes, along with their shift to the Left, made it easy for most centrist Clinton Republicans, admittedly a little platoon, to return to their natural home.
Impervious to fact and impossible to shame, Trump Republicans haven’t gone away. The poorly informed will always be with us. And, of course, Donald Trump didn’t disappear. The creation of Trump TV in mid-2017 vastly expanded the reach and rhetoric of both the ‘short-fingered vulgarian’ and the wider ‘Alt. Right’, a loose, porous aggregation of individuals opposed to immigration and multi-culturalism. The Republican Party had, of course, long relied on the tacit support of the nativists and racists that Trump energized. But the 2016 election revealed just how large this constituency was. It suggested that Republicans would have to cater to these white nationalists or face relegation to the status of a perennial minority party.
It’s true that some moderation, at least in style, was required for this revival. But again, not much. Unburdened by Trump’s penchant for extemporaneous embarrassment, a rising group of Republicans developed a kinder and gentler nationalism within two years of Clinton’s victory. In response to landmark Democratic legislation, the mid-term elections of 2018 saw the Republican Party return to power with a bare majority of seats in the House of Representatives. While they failed to take the Senate, they reduced Democratic control below the sixty seats required to act effectively there. The result is that President Clinton has been unable to build on her earlier accomplishments. At present, Republicans are expected to gain additional seats in the House this year.
Most recently, this rhetoric of reason has produced the meteoric rise of Governor Tom Martinez (52, Utah), the Republican nominee for the White House. Son of a successful small business owner, Thomas Jefferson Martinez was born in California to an Hispanic father – his ancestors were there before statehood – and mother from the back-country of Georgia. Martinez was raised in Dallas, Texas in a conservative catholic home. He was a graduate of the Naval Academy, where he played quarterback and specialized in Middle Eastern Studies. He served as a Captain in the Marine Corps and was decorated in the First Gulf War. The Governor subsequently attended Yale Law and, after clerking for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and marrying, he practiced as a Prosecutor in his wife’s native Utah.
After a few years, Martinez left his legal practice to co-manage the billion-dollar firearms business his wife had inherited from her parents. He was an effective CEO and was urged to run for Congress in 2010 to oppose President Obama’s political agenda. He was easily elected, largely on the basis of Tea Party support, and served on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He was reelected through 2016. In that year, he was elected Governor of Utah, despite Trump’s shadow. In this year’s Republican primaries, he managed to defeat both Senator Ted Cruz (Texas) and former Governor John Kasich (Ohio) handily. Most people thought Martinez combined the conservative core of the former and the reasonable rhetoric of the latter, but with more charisma than the two combined.
Indeed, Governor Martinez has proven to be equally attractive across the modern Right. He’s handsome, youthful and energetic. He’s an accomplished, optimistic, and cautious – or coded – speaker who is witty, down-to-earth, and media savvy. He doesn’t engage in personal insult or vendettas. And he favors typical Republican economic and military policies. Like many conservatives before him, the Governor wants to simultaneously balance the budget, reduce taxes, and increase defense spending. And if Martinez supports traditional values, he does so usually in hushed tones.
But Governor Martinez had, like many other Republicans in 2016, supported Trump. In evasive remarks, he’s walked a fine line between resistance to terrorists and repression of Muslims. His views on immigration aren’t far removed from Trump’s Wall, though the Governor’s backstory gives it a very different significance. His comments on race, too, show him a master of the dog whistle, allowing centrists and supremacists alike to believe he’s speaking for them. Perhaps most importantly, if Governor Martinez believes that the country’s going to hell, he speaks as if heaven was only an election away.
Can he make Republicans great again?
A native of Louisiana and long-time resident of Ireland, Seán Patrick Donlan is a Law Professor and Deputy Head of the University of the South Pacific School of Law. No, really.
And he has nothing to do with the #YoungDonald series.