Observers and commentators will be writing for a very long time parsing and rationalizing the presidency of Donald Trump and the role of the GOP. Little attention was focused at the time on the fact that the RNC decided to forgo an updated platform for the 2020 election, opting instead simply to adopt its 2016 program. In at least one instance, that proved to produce a contradiction as the 2016 Republican platform supported statehood for Puerto Rico. When the twittersphere and other media blared that the Democrats wanted statehood for Puerto Rico and DC to achieve a Senate majority, the GOP twitterverse promptly condemned the idea as a power grab.
The indelible traction created by P45 over the GOP base was simply impervious to such nuanced contradictions. No GOP senator spoke about a bipartisan effort on behalf of Puerto Rico. The success of P45 with the Republican electorate functioned like an organism as it overwhelmed the party. Its mesmerization in this regard received some attention in a New York Times article (G.O.P., Sunday magazine, November 1, 2020) reporting an interview with a local candidate for elective office in Washington, Virginal. An extended excerpt describes the phenomenon:
“I will tell you this: Donald Trump showed me something about running a serious campaign,” Mark Joe Matney told me. Matney, a 54-year old former high school special-education teacher active in the local Republican Party in Washington County, Virginia, ran for county commissioner of revenue in 2019. He had noticed that in the slate of local positions up for re-election, two Democratic incumbents – the treasurer and revenue commissioner – were running unopposed. He decided the second position was a better fit for him; he has an M..B.A. from Averett University and a doctorate in organizational leadership from Nova Southeastern University.
“As he prepared his bit, Matney recalled he considered what the president’s example had taught him about politics. “You know, you can’t be nice and cordial to your opponent – you have to make him enemy No. 1. In other words, in a serious, competitive race, you can’t be nice to your opponent and win.” He later clarified: “I’m not saying I took it that far. But Trump takes it that far, and shows us you have to be tough to win an election.”
“For Matney, being tough in the race to be the next chief of property assessment meant telegraphing to voters that the soul of the county was at stake. “In the local election here, before Trump came along, they never said ‘This is the Democrat, this is the Republican.’ They said, ‘This is John Doe running against Jim Doe.’ And I wanted to make sure that people understood that, no, local elections are not just about –.” He trailed off. “The party puts you on the ticket. And I wanted to distinguish that he was a Democrat, and I was a Republican.”
[The yard signs] read: “Dr. Mark Matney: Trump Republican for Commissioner of Revenue.” The “Trump Republican,” he believed, told voters most of what they needed to know. That it may have told voters little about his ability to assess the county’s motor vehicle tax was beside the point. “It was about the fact that my opponent gives money to a party that supports abortion,” he said.
“And not just a Republican. The yard signs that Matney began standing up throughout his southern Virginia county read: “Dr. Mark Matney: Trump Republican for Commissioner of Revenue.” The “Trump Republican,” he believed, told voters most of what they needed to know. That it may have told voters little about his ability to assess the county’s motor vehicle tax was beside the point. “It was about the fact that my opponent gives money to a party that supports abortion,” he said. There was no need, he said, for the issues-laden brochures that local candidates dispensed in the past; rather, a business card that on one side reiterated his support for Trump and on the other said, ‘Go vote, or Democrats win,’ would do the trick.
“…Matney doesn’t view Trumpism as any great ideological departure from the GOP of, say, the George W. Bush era. But he stressed that were he running for this position 15 years ago, he wouldn’t have advertised himself as a “Bush Republican.” For Matney, a Bush Republican is a guy like Ed Gillespie, who lost the race for governor of Virginia in 2017 because he was “too nice” to Ralph Northam.
The conventional political wisdom was that Gillespie’s attempts to mimic the president served him poorly. But Matney insisted that the lesson of Gillespie’s crushing loss was that he didn’t go far enough. “He wouldn’t press the issues that separate us and wouldn’t attack the other side,” Matney said. “I watched a debate between Northam and Gillespie, and I was telling people, this is ridiculous. Oh, you; go ahead and talk. Oh, I’m sorry, I interrupted you. I’m like are you guys going to go outside and kiss after? I mean, it was terrible. It was the worst campaign I’ve ever seen in my life.” In November Matney beat his own opponent, the 12-year Democratic incumbent, by six points.”
This snapshot of a local candidate’s modeling of his understanding of the reason for his party’s existence and the success of its national leader offers a revealing profile of contemporary political life in our nation. The incumbent President has received nearly six million more popular votes than in 2016. That reality presents a sobering realization for POTUS 46.
The conflating of Trump and the GOP may have lasting effects beyond 2020, causing true believers such as Mr. Matney to be concerned about the future, with or without Trump.
Matney told The New York Times reporter, “Because, if Trump wins, he can never run for president again. What happens then, when it’s all over? My scary thought is, where do we find another one like him?”
John Bolton recently stated that the GOP faced a character test. One measure of that character may be seen in the deafening silence from elected GOP leaders failing to offer congratulatory wishes to the President-elect and Vice President-elect. Does that signal, like Mr. Matney, the wish for a Trump replacement with a similar character?