Will Donald Trump come back from his defeat?

Trump has already let it be known he intends to primary, beginning in 2022, all the “weak Republicans” who betrayed him in the impeachment fight. He’s prepared for a civil war within the party’s ranks; he thinks the other guy started it but plans to finish it on his terms.

But the second impeachment, and the tragedy at the Capitol, will weigh on Trump’s support. An erosion has already begun. Almost every poll shows his approval ratings plummeting since Jan. 6. In most polls, a majority of Americans say he deserves a great deal of blame for the storming of the Capitol. Only 43 percent of Republicans say they want the party to continue to treat him as its leader.

Although not catastrophic, that public sentiment doesn’t augur well for a political comeback. The trends will probably worsen, at least temporarily, as the second impeachment plays out and as various state and federal prosecutors come after the ex-president. Even at the peak of his popularity and power, Trump’s approval ratings were stuck in the mid-40s. 

Much will depend, however, on the comparisons offered up by the Biden administration. If President Biden were to fare as poorly as, say, Jimmy Carter did at both domestic and foreign policy, Trump and his administration would begin to look better in retrospect — and so might the prospect of a second Trump, or at least Trumpist, administration.

The danger to the GOP and to the conservative movement is that the impending feud between pro- and anti-Trump forces could produce a long-term split that would hand 2024 and subsequent elections to the Democratic progressives. Trump could run in the GOP primaries, fall short and still take up a third party’s nomination — thus really sticking it to the Republican establishment!

What would happen then to Trumpism, assuming there is such a thing? Virginia Postrel writes that “Trumpism without Trump is like chocolate chip ice cream without chocolate chips. Missing its defining ingredient, it’s plain vanilla.”

There’s something to her argument, and the way Trump has treated the party’s grandees over the years shows his impatience, to say the least, with the norms and formalities of political life, including the elaboration of his own political beliefs. 

And yet he never could do without Republican supporters and policy ideas. First, there are not enough die-hard Trump voters to bring victory. Despite the emotional bonds connecting him to his most fervid voters — “love” is how they often describe it — Trump needs the support of lots of independents and Republicans who are just not that into him personally.

Second, the Trump agenda was never well prepared and thought through. To his own enthusiasms it added orthodox GOP thinking about tax cuts, judges and deregulation. Trump made the resulting mix his own, however, and those policy commitments formed a working definition of Trumpism: economic protectionism, “internal improvements” or infrastructure spending, immigration reduced and tied to assimilation, a modest foreign policy mindful of the national interest, low taxes, judges willing to enforce the constitutional limits of legislative power and a patriotic civic culture. 

This is a very old-fashioned Republican policy mix, adapted, in effect, from the party of Lincoln and Calvin Coolidge. In a surprising way Trump led the GOP back to its roots before World War II, back to when it was, not entirely coincidentally, the majority party.

Most of these new (old) policy emphases will, I think, outlast him and his administration. Trumpism has a future, even without Trump’s continuing political presence; indeed, it’s possible it may have a brighter future without him with fresh political talent like Tim Scott, Tom Cotton, Mike Pompeo, Kristi Noem and others.

Trump’s combative, irreverent, original style is not replicable. But the essential element of his political manner that needs to cross to the movement he has led is the courage he shows in confronting political correctness, cancel culture and the scorn of progressive censors. His successors cannot afford to lose his wonderful effrontery in opposing, for example, the continuing ideological purges of American history and heroes.

The fate of the political movement Donald Trump led, and hopes to lead again, will depend on being able to preserve that spirit of patriotic indignation from the spirit of lawlessness unleashed at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Charles R. Kesler is editor of the Claremont Review of Books, from which this has been adapted.

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