Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.
In decades to come, Donald Trump’s presidency will be remembered by two speeches that book-ended his term in office, both delivered from the steps of the US Capitol.
The first, his inaugural address in January 2017, spoke of “American carnage”, ending “the ravages of other countries” and preventing the “wealth of the middle class being ripped” away by ill-defined actors. It clearly defined the politics of paranoia and division that followed.
The second, delivered yesterday afternoon, was nothing short of an incitement of violence. “We will never give up and will never concede the election”, Trump said, baselessly asserting that the election had been “stolen by emboldened radical Democrats”.
Trump knows the power of words – and the actions they can result in.
The objections raised in Congress to the certification of the electoral college votes can only charitably be described as a malodorous cocktail to outright falsehoods, half-truths and sophistry grounded in no legal or procedural reality. The results of this pageant of absurdity – the storming of the US Congress by protestors, the ransacking of parliamentarian’s offices and the placing of pipe bombs at the headquarters of the Democrat and Republican parties – are plain to see.
But democracy, just as it always does in America, will win the day. Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President on 20th January – and then it’s time for Republicans to cut the Gordian knot of the Trump years and decisively move on.
“In a President, character is everything”, Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter Peggy Noonan argued. “A President doesn’t have to be brilliant. He doesn’t have to be clever; you can hire clever. You can hire pragmatic, and you can buy and bring in policy wonks”.
Trump at least partly took Noonan’s sentiments to heart.
His appointments to the Supreme Court may not be to everyone’s taste, yet Trump has ensured conservative orthodoxies will guide its rulings for the next quarter-century or more. His Tax Cuts and Jobs Act slashed America’s high corporate tax rates and delivered meaningful income tax cuts for working people. On foreign policy, while his intransigence towards traditional allies caused consternation, clear successes in the Middle East have been achieved.
“But,” as Noonan also reminds us, a President “can’t buy courage and decency, can’t rent a strong moral sense and needs to have a vision of the future he wishes to create”.
Therein lay the problem for the Trump administration; and hereby lies the challenge for a Republican Party that appears willing to present itself, at least for now, as the Trump Party.
Despite a successful economic agenda, Trump’s insensitive and intransigent approach to everything from sexual assault to coronavirus to immigration proved too much for many.
Make no mistake: Trump’s defeat in November was a personal repudiation, not a wholesale rejection of the Republican Party. Indeed, one of the biggest surprises of the recent elections was the robustness Republican congressional candidates showed, with the party only narrowly missing out on gaining control of the House despite a seven million vote deficit in the Presidential race.
In California, two naturalised Korean American women gained congressional districts from the Democrats at the same time as Biden won them convincingly. In the overwhelmingly Hispanic Miami area, two Democratic seats fell to Cuban American Republican challengers – also in areas Biden won handily.
The common message from those with knowledge of the campaigns on the ground was that the success of the two campaigns rested on two pillars: stressing their divergence from Trump on issues such as environmental policy and immigration and striking aspirational, positive – Reaganesque – tone on the personal and economic freedom.
Contrasting the strategies adopted in California and Florida back in November with those of the two Republican Senators defeated in run-off elections in Georgia on Tuesday, the differences are clear to see.
Rather than being able to highlight their own accomplishments and proposals, the campaigns of now ex-Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were reduced to a referendum on the President’s insecurities. Campaigning in the state earlier this week, Trump used his primetime TV slot to berate Republicans he saw as insufficiently loyal to his agenda and to bolster his claims about electoral malfeasance. Loeffler’s closing pitch on the same evening was essentially reduced to: “vote for us on Tuesday and we’ll throw out our state’s electoral college votes on Wednesday”.
Much has been written about the historic nature of the victories of Reverend Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Martin Luther King’s former church, and Jon Ossoff, the first Jewish Senator in the Deep South. The victory of Warnock, in particular, is a victory for both post-racial politics in the Deep South and years of hard work among Democrats to organise around the state’s changing demographics. That should ring alarm bells for Republicans.
Rather than expand the Republican coalition as Democrats have successfully managed to do, Trump’s legacy as a both a candidate and President is to have narrowed it.
Suburban areas around the country – from Atlanta to Seattle to Philadelphia – have sharply moved against the Republicans under Trump. Polling further suggests that the outgoing President’s vulgar pronouncements and boorish nature had the effect of pushing ordinarily Republican-friendly groups such as the affluent university-educated voters and white women away from the party.
Only time will tell what further damage has been done to the party’s brand by the scenes of near insurrection in the Capitol yesterday. For 121 Republican congressmen – almost three in five of its members in the US House – to have backed the first procedural motion to throw out the results of the closely-fought state of Arizona shows just how badly Trump has toxified debate inside the party.
As the results on Georgia on Tuesday prove, demonstrating fealty to an unpopular President does not motivate voters; positive messages about economic recovery, aspiration and opportunity do.
In two years, Americans will go back to the polls to vote in mid-term elections history suggests they will be favoured to win. After the appalling scenes overnight, the Republican Party has a clear choice to make: to be the party of Donald Trump or to decisively move on, regroup and return to its roots as a low-tax, pro-freedom movement. What would Ronald Reagan do?