Pending the outcome in a few key states, Donald Trump may be leaving the White House, but he’s not exiting the room.
The fiercest Never Trump critics hoped for — and wishfully predicted — a cleansing landslide that would wipe out every trace of Trump and his enablers from the GOP.
That’s not happening. Trump’s poll- and pundit-defying surge toward the cusp of a second term vindicates Trump’s approach enough to give him and his potential successors continued traction, if not a dominant voice, in the party.
Trump’s possible loss is nothing like the shellacking the GOP experienced in 2008, when Barack Obama won in a landslide together with a 60-seat Senate majority.
Trump’s party has a chance to retain its Senate majority and will pick up House seats, while the margin of his own defeat may be a whisker in the Blue Wall states, just as his margin of victory in 2016 was a whisker.
He did his own side the inadvertent favor of perhaps buffering it from the worst consequences of his own possible loss — first, by filling the Ruth Bader Ginsburg seat on the Supreme Court that otherwise would have fallen to Joe Biden, and by performing well enough to aid the cause of Republican Senate candidates, who will check a Biden presidency from the outset if they do indeed manage to hold the majority.
Trump’s voters were still there for him — in fact, more so than ever. His tack of doubling down on his base wasn’t quite as insane as we were always told by commentators. His strong close proved his power as a campaigner, with his signature madcap rallies serving as effective organizing and messaging vehicles.
This is not to deny that Trump’s own failings helped sink him. There are a thousand pitfalls he could have avoided if he weren’t so self-involved and undisciplined. No single one of them made the difference, but cumulatively they blighted his presidency and made him radioactive in the suburbs.
No one should want to repeat them, and the party should never again get behind such a flawed personal figure.
Nevertheless, Trump points to a viable GOP future even if he comes up short. He posted startling gains among Latino voters. This shows it’s possible to imagine a working-class-oriented Republican Party that isn’t a demographic dead end, but genuinely crosses racial lines, even if this potential is still inchoate.
Given how Trump’s base showed up massively in the past two presidential elections, it’s also unlikely that these voters are going to be jettisoned anytime soon by some other Republican presidential candidate. Indeed, the education- and class-based re-sorting of the GOP — affluent suburbs peeling off and working-class voters coming on board — predated Trump.
The concerns of these voters have to figure prominently in the agenda of the GOP going forward. That doesn’t require embracing any particular Trump policy — steel tariffs, for instance, have been a bust — but it does mean the party will inevitably have a populist coloration.
One lesson of Trump is that presidential politics rewards entrepreneurial candidates who figure out a new way to win a party’s nomination and to campaign. Trump imitators will likely fail. Instead, the name of the game should be figuring out how to hold the Trump base while recovering ground in the suburbs, especially given that Trump’s electoral path might have been too narrow even for Trump himself to duplicate.
All of this work, though, will take place with Trump himself remaining an outsize presence. He will remain a fixture on Fox News and talk radio. His supporters will still consider him a legendary warrior, a totem of resistance to the media and the cultural elite. His endorsements will continue to be valuable, and ambitious 2024 candidates will seek to inherit his mantle.
Trump might not win the biggest, most important prize of a second term in 2020, but there’s no doubt he has staved off political irrelevance.
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.