“This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
This is a Don Draper line from “Mad Men,” delivered as advice he earned the hard way, when he stole another man’s identity and left his own behind.
It’s also the way that many Republican senators hope to deal with the memory of the Donald Trump era, assuming that they wake up on Nov. 4 (or whenever the ballot counting ends) and discover that the president has not been reelected.
Acting as if Trumpism “never happened” doesn’t just mean they want to blot out their memories of Trump himself, his Twitter feed, their unwilling ring-kissing, all the rest. It means that many of them believe that Trump’s election was essentially an accident, a fluke, a temporary hiatus from the kind of conservative politics they’re comfortable practicing, and so if he loses there’s no reason the Republican Party can’t go back to the way things used to be.
One of the last times I was in Washington, in days when it was still normal to hop a plane to our nation’s capital, a smart Republican staffer remarked to me that out of his entire caucus, only a small group of senators thought the GOP had something significant to learn from Trump’s ascent.
The rest were ready for the Draper method.
You can see that readiness at work already in the internal Republican debates about the latest round of coronavirus relief. These debates are somewhat mystifying if you believe that the party has been remade in Trump’s populist image, or alternatively if you just believe that the GOP is full of cynics who attack deficits under Democrats but happily spend whatever it takes to stay in power. Neither theory explains the Republican determination to dramatically underbid the Democrats on relief spending three months before an election, nor the emergence of a faction within the Senate Republicans that doesn’t want to spend more money on relief at all.
But these developments are easier to understand if you see the Republican Senate, in what feels like the twilight of the Trump presidency, instinctively returning to its pre-Trump battle lines. The anti-relief faction, with its sudden warnings about deficits, is eager to revive the Tea Party spirit, and its would-be leaders are ur-Tea Partyers like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. The faction that wants to spend less than the Democrats but ultimately wants to strike a deal is playing the same beleaguered-establishmentarian role that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell played in the pre-Trump party — and of course McConnell is still leading it. And the fact that neither approach seems responsive to the actual crisis unfolding in America right now doesn’t matter: The old Tea Party-establishment battle — a battle over whether to cut a deal at all, more than what should be in it — is still the Republican comfort zone, and the opportunity to slip back into that groove is just too tempting to resist.
Of course there is cynicism as well as ideological comfort at work. Some of the Republicans rediscovering deficit hawkishness — including non-senators like Nikki Haley — are taking a Joe Biden presidency for granted and positioning themselves as the foes of a big-government liberalism before it even takes power, in the hopes of becoming the leaders of the post-2020 opposition.
But it’s not clear that self-interest rightly understood would incline an ambitious Republican to bring back the old Tea Party spirit. After all, the lesson of 2016 was that Ted Cruz didn’t win, and instead True Conservatism as defined by the right’s ideological enforcers got thrashed by a real-estate mogul who promised big, beautiful health care and infrastructure and a whole bunch of things that it turned out Republican voters favored even if their party’s activists did not. So if running the Tea Party play again reflects cynicism, then it’s a highly motivated cynicism — with the motivation being the palpable desire of most Republican senators to look back on the Trump experience and recite the Draper catechism: This never happened.
Most, but not all: There is also that group my staffer friend mentioned, the senators who accept that Trumpism really happened, and who envision a different party on the other side.
You can identify the members of this group both by their willingness to spend money in the current crisis and by their interest in how it might be spent. That means Marco Rubio spearheading the small business relief bill. It means Josh Hawley pushing for the federal government to pre-empt layoffs by paying a chunk of worker salaries. It means Tom Cotton defending crisis spending against Cruz’s attack. It means Mitt Romney leading a push to put more of the federal stimulus payments in the hands of families with kids.
Notably, all of these figures have had differing approaches to Trump the man: Romney famously in opposition, Cotton and Hawley fully on-side, Rubio somewhere in between. And the same diversity shows up among the born-again deficit hawks, a group that includes not just reliable Trump allies but also the 2016 Never Trumper Ben Sasse.
So Republican divisions over Trump himself are somewhat different from Republican divisions over what to learn from Trumpism. A figure like Romney is anti-Trump, but he might be friendlier to post-Trump populism, while Cruz and Paul have ended up pro-Trump but will probably revert to their libertarian roots once he’s gone.
Or, I should say, if he ever goes. Because the trouble with both the Draper method and the “this happened, let’s learn from it” approaches to the Trump experience is that they assume not only that Trump will lose (a strong bet but of course not a certain one) but also that in defeat he will recede sufficiently to be willfully forgotten, or allow a more robust nationalism supplant his ersatz, personalized version.
Will he? I don’t know. No politician’s mystique is permanent; maybe a sweeping defeat will really be the end of Trump’s. But nobody should be surprised if the desires that are so palpable among Republican senators right now — both the yearning for a simple return to the status quo ante and the hope for a better, smarter populism — will have to contend, across a Biden presidency, with an alternative embodied either by a scion or by the man himself: the dream of a Trump Restoration.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.