The Republican Party finds itself amid a civil war with the 2024 general election just a year away. The fight is not between candidates but between competing philosophical visions for the GOP: Reaganism vs. Trumpism. The former is more successful than the latter, but the latter will need to reinvent itself for Republicans to win on the national stage again.
Since the ’80s, Republicans have heralded Ronald Reagan’s “Reaganism” as the standard policy playbook for the party. Pillars of Reaganism included adherence to federalism, deregulation, upward mobility, and free market economics. However, the MAGA Republicans and National Conservatives who make up the New Right criticize these principles as a “Zombie Reaganism” that is outdated in today’s political climate.
Conservative commentator Allie Beth Stuckey recently tweeted, “[W]e’re done with the old, corporate tax cuts GOP. We want you to use all the power available to you to crush the entities crushing us.” At CPAC, former President Donald Trump went even further on the attack, saying, “The Republican Party was ruled by freaks, neocons, open-border zealots, and fools. We’re never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush.” Trump even went as far as to link Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his potential future primary opponent, to Reagan as a line of attack to halt his momentum. (RELATED: A Trump–DeSantis Ticket Can Win in 2024)
Republicans, take note of DeSantis’s win: we’re done with the old, corporate tax cuts GOP. We want you to use all the power available to you to crush the entities crushing us.
— Allie Beth Stuckey (@conservmillen) November 9, 2022
While Trumpism has a stranglehold on the Republican Party, its track record of winning does not match that of Reaganism. Republicans won the presidential elections of 1980, 1984, and 1988 due to a coalition of defense hawks, social conservatives, and fiscal conservatives that Reagan had helped to assemble. Post-Reagan years saw massive midterm elections in 1994, 2010, and 2014, which echoed the same themes of budgetary discipline, limited government, and a robust national defense.
However, Trump’s win in 2016 provided a wake-up call to Republicans and realigned the GOP as a multiethnic, working-class party. The Republican establishment needed a shakeup, but the problem is that the Trump coalition is not a sustainable winning coalition. Republicans made inroads with blue-collar workers and voters with only a high school education, but that demographic is shrinking.
Between 1980 and 1988, Democrats had an advantage over Americans without college degrees by 14 points, while Republicans had a five-point edge among college graduates. Since 1980, the percentage of voters without a college degree has decreased from 84 percent to 63 percent, as of 2020. Data from the Washington Post revealed that Democrats won among voters with a bachelor’s degree in 2022. The suburbs have historically voted for Republicans but have increasingly shifted to the Democrats since 2016. The reason for this is increased education and population growth.
The demographic shift in America makes Trump’s presidential victory seem more like an aberration. Moreover, he was against a historically unpopular Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Not only did Trump finish three million votes behind in the popular vote, but he also finished with a lower share of the popular vote than Republican candidate Mitt Romney did in 2012. Trump’s electoral track record has only worsened, as his party lost elections in 2018, 2020, and 2022.
Despite Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign and in office, his policy portfolio echoed Reaganism. His signature achievements include cutting taxes under Speaker Paul Ryan’s leadership, appointing originalist judges to the federal courts, cutting regulations from the executive branch, and moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Again, these accomplishments are Reaganist, and Trump’s skeptical Republicans support them.
Trumpism’s main policy issues — such as immigration, trade protectionism, and an isolationist foreign policy — were popular talking points on the campaign trail. Still, no meaningful legislation came to tackle these critical issues. Trumpism may seem like a new idea, but others — such as Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot — ran on the same themes and lost; of course, they did not have the same celebrity platform as Trump.
Zombie Trumpism has not developed any new meaningful ideas but has created some monsters. 2022 gubernatorial candidates such as Kari Lake in Arizona and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania lost races that Republicans should have won. Instead of learning from their mistakes, they are considering running for office again in 2024 on Trump’s themes of election integrity and the plight of working-class Americans.
These are crucial swing states in 2024 that could solidify a solid Democratic majority if Republican primary voters don’t vote for non-Trump Republicans who can win. The 2023 elections of progressive Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson in Chicago and liberal-aligned jurist Janet Protasiewicz to the Wisconsin Supreme Court are a warning sign that swing voters have had enough of Trump’s influence on Republican candidates.
Conservatives must restore the conservative movement to build the broader, winning coalition that Reaganism built. However, we live in a different era, and the policies must keep up with the current demographic trends and cultural shifts. Conservatives need to modernize and not moderate their message — not only so that they can win again, but also so that Zombie Trumpism will never be resurrected.
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