Trump won the presidency but, no matter how the GOP spins it, they lost as much as the Democrats in the election.
The election has no doubt shown the weakness of Democratic support – deep, but shallow support that is heavily geographically concentrated. It shows in how they have one popular votes but lost electoral ones in two of the last five elections. They thought that the long time demographic shifts were in their favor, and they may well be, but they were too early in assuming they reached the tipping point. However, this is ultimately an organizational error – one that has been addressed by losing parties before and can be rectified by the hard work of party building outside of their traditional bastions.
The GOP, however, has a far bigger problem. When Trump was predicted to lose, there were already factions lining up to fight for the direction of the party, from the alt-right to mainstreet types to cultural conservatives. Many people who left the party were willing to go back to reshape it after the loss.
However, they won. There will be no internal reckoning with the soul of the party. The Trumpistas are ascendant, and NeverTrumpers cowed. They are forcibly stitched together for the next four years. The alt-right sloganeering of Trump on the campaign trail – the hate, misogyny, overt racism and lack of respect for democratic norms – can no longer be dismissed as a movement within the GOP that was squashed. Trump’s win has permanently burned that into the party’s DNA, and it will take a generation to cleanse itself.
In the immediate term, conservatives will have victories in policy and in court appointments. However, when Trump is gone, the party will remain identified with him and his bigotry.
This puts what was once the mainstream of the GOP in a difficult position. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and company will be saddled with a political identity synonymous with hate. Their focus now is on areas of policy agreement and the minutiae of governing because the big question – what happens next – is ultimately too scary to fathom.
Their best option, politically, is to openly defy their own president to position Trump as an independent entity distinct from the GOP. This will cause problems for them in 2020 but can help preserve their brand and possibly even bring the GOP professional class back into the fold.
This is a tall order. Trump controls the RNC now, and there is no evidence that elected GOP officials have that kind of foresight or backbone.
They can try to rebrand the GOP after Trump, but those are the efforts of collaborators adapting after the collapse of a regime.
It is a near-impossible situation for the party. The dog has caught the car – now what do they do?