With impeachment and the 2020 elections looming before the country, it is fast becoming time to consider what the Republican Party will look like after Donald Trump leaves the scene, whether that happens sooner or later.

Even if Trump somehow ended up resigning, being convicted, or choosing not to run for re-election – all of which seem exceedingly unlikely right now – the Trump era would hardly come grinding to an immediate halt. On such short notice, it would be extraordinarily difficult for the Republican Party to stage a successful, wide-open primary campaign full of new faces.

Instead, the nominee would probably be someone who’d served in the administration and was already familiar to the party faithful, like Vice President Mike Pence or former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. If Trump were convicted by the Senate or resigned, the odds might favor Haley, who seems unconnected to the current scandal but hasn’t been running around criticizing Trump much in public. If Trump decided not to run again, then Pence might be more likely to be the nominee. Either way, it wouldn’t be like 2016, where a wide-open field allowed Trump to enter late and rapidly eclipse his more well-established opponents.

If Trump remains in office and is the nominee again in 2020, the timing of the question changes, but the content might not very much. Traditional conservatives who never supported Trump might hope that, were he to lose re-election, his ideology would vanish from the party forever. But there’s little reason to believe that would immediately come to pass.

If Trump loses, there’s every reason to think that his strongest supporters would blame less-than-enthusiastic Republicans just as much as they do Democrats. While they might be willing to tolerate a traditional conservative who loyally supported Trump – like a member of his administration or one of his vocal supporters in Congress – they’d never support someone who consistently spoke out against him.

Even if Trump were to lose, it’s more likely that his bombastic approach to the job would be abandoned than his policies. Since they’ve failed to oppose him in any substantive way, many Republicans have shown that they don’t much care about former pillars of conservatism, like fiscal restraint or free trade. To be sure, Trump is hardly the first Republican president to completely forget fiscal conservatism the minute he was sworn in. It’s far easier and a lot more fun to cut taxes than it is to cut spending, after all. Presidents frequently have a tendency to pay lip service to fiscal responsibility while campaigning and then ignore it while governing, but Trump showed it wasn’t even worth paying attention to during the campaign. Instead of pressing him on the issue, congressional Republicans have been willing to settle for tax cuts without making any other tough fiscal decisions, just like always.

Trump has similarly conquered the GOP when it comes to trade policy. Republicans once were fierce advocates of free trade, and they frequently found common cause with like-minded practical Democrats. These days, they may grumble about every Trump tariff, but they haven’t actually done anything to stop any of them. By refusing to impede his trade policy in any meaningful way, most Republicans have given Trump carte blanche to act as he sees fit in this area.

On immigration, too, Republicans are letting Trump run the show. It’s easy to forget now, but back in 2012 many thought that a big part of the reason Romney lost was because he was too tough on immigration. This wasn’t just some excuse cooked up by beltway insiders – Trump himself made this argument after the election. Four years later, he apparently realized he was wrong, tacked much harder to the right on it and won.

The question isn’t really whether future Republican presidential hopefuls do a complete 180 from Trump on all of these issues – that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, as Trump’s supporters will remain a force in politics for years to come.

Instead, the question will be whether Republicans can find a candidate who can retain Trump’s base without moving any farther to the right (or towards populism, if you prefer) in those areas. If that seems impossible, don’t forget that just 10 years ago, with a Democratic Congress, President Barack Obama couldn’t get a public option passed; today, the health care debate among Democrats revolves around Medicare-for-all.

Whether it’s from the left or the right, ideas that once seemed crazy can all too quickly enter the mainstream.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


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