If you’re somewhere between your late teens and early adulthood, you ought to relate to a moment of this kind. You’re lying in bed, listening to your best Deep Thoughts Playlist. As the prospect of college or maybe a job gets closer, you can’t help but wonder where you’ll go, what you’ll do, or who you’ll become … Contemplations stamped with a question mark.

If you’re struggling with your identity, don’t feel too despondent because you’re not the only one. The Republican Party is right there with you.

Where do we go from here?

For the last four years, the GOP clung to a leader who was set on betraying them from the beginning. All too happy to support Trump during his political honeymoon — when the party held a majority both in the House and Senate in 2016, or when they were electing three conservative supreme court judges — Republicans figured moral compromise was a small price to pay for political and legislative control of America.

Unfortunately for the GOP, they were making a deal with the Devil: short-term, superficial power traded for their long-standing, fundamental values. Every time they looked away to enable Trump’s madness — some out of genuine support, others out of ambition, and others yet out of fear of a mean tweet — one of the party’s pillars was replaced by an indelible stain: global hegemony for isolationism, law and order for brawls and blasphemy, economic opportunities for racism and xenophobia.

With Trump out of the White House, their moment in the sun is at an end. As reality sets in, a hollow party comes to meet it. 

So the question on everybody’s mind — including those who compromised the Republican Party — is simple: Where does the GOP go from here?

The Forgotten, Pre-Trump Republican Party

The contemporary stereotype of a Republican seems to be an angry, white Southern male who loves his guns and rides around in an old pick-up truck with a ‘Make America Great Again’ bumper sticker. He’ll probably start preaching his constitutional rights if you ask him to wear a face mask. However, it wasn’t always like this. In fact, until the onset of Trump, this represented a small and hidden segment of the party.

Once upon a time, in an era which now feels so far gone, the Republican Party wasn’t the party of Trump, but the party of Reagan. 

During his last speech at a Republican convention, Reagan proclaimed how all Americans were ‘equal in the eyes of God’, and must be ‘equal in the eyes of each other’ — reminding them that ‘in America, our origins matter less than our destinations’.

This was a party that placed America at the centre of the world instead of removing it from it. And one that stepped on the necks of Soviet leaders instead of patting their shoulders. While Reagan offered amnesty to illegal immigrants, Trump lost their children at the border. Conservative politicians were people who valued good character, honour, and dignity above all else.

Some argue that the post-Trump GOP will return to just this, perceiving Trump as a momentary lapse in judgement that will have no further influence on the party now that he’s left office. However, these people miss an important point: Trump is not the cause, but a symptom, of a disease which has long plagued the Republican Party.

The unnatural fusion resulting in Trumpism

The bigoted nationalists ruling the party today were present in Reagan’s time, only they were contained by the fusionist approach enacted in a Cold War context. Back then, the looming threat of Communist Russia was daunting enough to pull all conservatives together.

During this era, the elites which ruled the party and the working-class supporters historically comprising its base were wedded in a circumstantial marriage, responsible for the party’s stability even in the face of the different ambitions of its members.

That changed with the end of the Cold War and the beginning of widening wealth inequality, characteristic of the technology and globalisation era. Without a larger force glueing them to the party, and where the few at the top collected the seeds of technological advancements, blue-collar workers lagged behind, and their needs were repeatedly ignored.

Trump tapped exactly into this. He played into the Republican schism, reaching out to the common people who had been neglected for so long and who had always had the power to tip the scales. People who are more pragmatic than orthodox and said ‘hey, I see you’.

This is why the GOP needs Trumpism. It needs to retain a support base which before him was slipping further and further away from them. The problem is that Trump has made Trumpism essentially unsupportable.

If his criminal acts and racist rhetoric hadn’t been enough to kill the movement before, Trump certainly gave it a final blow in these last weeks by placing it in direct opposition to American democracy. Through his cries of election fraud, violent calls to Georgia’s senator, and inciting of the mob to surge on the Capitol, Trump presented conservatives with mutually exclusive options — him or democracy — impeding even the most hardcore Trumpists from standing by him (Mike Pence, this one’s for you).

If the Republican party wants to survive, they need to overcome what could be their biggest challenge to date: how to keep the voters brought in by Trump, while ditching the racially-loaded justifications used to explain their economic inferiority. 

It is only by keeping the ‘Trump’ appeal but de-racialising it that the GOP will be able to project themselves as the party of common people. Ditching the extremist and intolerance connotations that alienate a lot of voters is now a matter of urgency, especially when considering America’s fast-changing demographics which predict a substantial increase in racial minorities.

What if they can’t do this?

Some — like NYT’s Writer Thomas L. Friedman — seem to lean towards the party fracturing between principled and unprincipled Republicans. Personally, the birth of a new conservative party feels unlikely because, in a context where it is basically impossible for third parties to succeed, splits within parties are not the exception but the rule.

In fact, the present Democratic coalition is no less unnatural. Although the party is now united in their ‘defeating Trump’ bliss, it might not be long before progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren become disillusioned by Biden’s moderate policies and begin to drift away themselves.

So, in a country with only two parties to represent millions of different people and opinions, the challenge isn’t to erase divisions, but to unite them over common goals, aims and ambitions. If the GOP is incapable of achieving this, a split would be a blessing for them. But I fear the reality will be much gloomier. Possibly, one where the remainders of what once used to be a great party are bickering between themselves, without any real political control of America for many years to come.

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