How Trumpism Fractured the GOP
His infectious narcissism and incessant victimhood fueled a cult of personality.
Bad marriages usually lead to ugly divorces, and that’s where the GOP is heading.
After Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination in 2016, the word went forth on the right: It’s a binary choice. You’re either for Hillary or you’re for Trump. I never agreed with this reasoning, but in a two-party system the claim was defensible. The peculiar thing is that even after he was elected, the “binary choice” bullying never went away; it just changed from “Hillary or Trump” to “for Trump or against him.”
There were left-wing and right-wing versions of this all-or-nothing mentality, the former requiring total resistance to all things Trump, the latter total support. But it was the right-wing version that probably cost Trump the election. And it’s now threatening to tear apart the GOP.
On cable TV, talk radio and right-wing web platforms that dedicated themselves to round-the-clock Trump support, Trump’s minor successes were celebrated as unprecedented victories. His major successes were offered as proof of the president’s almost superhuman qualities. His failures were usually explained in one of two ways. They were either proof of his four-dimensional chess master genius—just wait, this is part of his master plan!—or evidence that powerful, sinister forces were undermining him: the “deep state,” the establishment, the “fake news” media, the cultural Marxists, the military-industrial complex, the “never Trump” fifth columnists or a combination thereof.
Because Trump’s narcissism was so profound, he responded to criticism with the political equivalent of a nuclear counterstrike. And because Trump’s insecurity was infectious, his fan base—which had outsize power in primaries—would follow suit. This ensured that most Republican politicians shouted their praise of Trump and muzzled their criticism.
The same dynamic applied to most right-of-center media and many conservative institutions. Kellyanne Conway may have been joking in 2017 when she said CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) was now TPAC, but it didn’t take long for her observation to seem prophetic.
Institutionalized Trump narcissism probably cost him the election, because the superhuman image he insisted his loyalists embrace never reflected the reality on the ground. Many Republicans were in fact not that into him. They liked the judges, the tax cuts, even some of the “own the libs” bombast. But they were turned off by the self-indulgence, the conspiracy theorizing and the constant need for praise and attention. Still, few conservative politicians or media figures were willing to say so. Trump believed his most fawning media, and his fawning media told him again and again, “Never change.”
The result was a massive turnout of anti-Trump voting. The bulk of it manifested as historic turnout among Democrats enraged by four years of being trolled by the president. But a significant chunk of it took the form of Republicans or Republican-leaning voters who split their tickets or declined to vote for the top of the ticket. In normal times, if you’re willing to vote for a Republican governor, senator or congressman, you are by definition a gettable vote for a Republican presidential candidate. But Trump lost in many states where other Republicans won. It’s true, as Trump says, that he got more votes than any Republican president; he just didn’t get enough of them.
To the extent that there is any good faith to the false claims the Democrats stole the election, it can be explained by the fact that many Republicans, including Trump himself, believed the pro-Trump propaganda they’ve been fed for four years. If you actually think the president can’t lose, that the American people are with him and that the shadowy forces he was battling are real, why wouldn’t you scoff at the idea Biden won?
But Biden did win. And that fact is shattering the Temple of the Binary Choice on the right.
For four years, Donald Trump was president, which also meant he was the de facto head of the Republican Party. This allowed the acolytes of Trumpism—however you want to define that sloppy term—to marry Trumpism, nationalism, patriotism, populism, tribalism, MAGA, etc., to old-fashioned party loyalty.
That marriage is over now. And the breakup is ugly—and revealing in its ugliness. For many, Trumpism wasn’t about the party. For a few, it wasn’t even about the country. It was about him. His infectious narcissism and incessant victimhood fueled this cult of personality, which he valued more than the office he held. Trump has lost his grip on the office, but he’s doing everything he can to hold on to the cult by claiming he was robbed. It remains to be seen how many people he’ll take with him. But we can be sure the answer will be “too many.”
Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.