The next true leader of the party will be one of three people, someone who fought/dominated Trump, someone not at all on the scene right now, or Trump himself.
To my boys:
The Hippocampus is a remarkable structure. It allows for the consolidation of memories of all sorts of memories that include, but are not limited to, sounds, smells, sights, thoughts, and even complex combinations of all of the above. It guides the formation of how we see the world and people in it.
I mention this because it has been the wont of politicians since time immemorial to overcome, through deft argumentation and positional sleight of hand, the sum total of our hippocampi’s labors, so that we may not remember their previous words and actions when they become electorally inconvenient.
Now many GOP electeds find themselves in a scenario not unlike the administration did this past February. As opposed to a once-in-a-century pandemic, or a once in a generation protest movement, their reckoning comes in the form of an electoral wipeout come November.
For many of them, this does not matter a ton to them personally as they are either not up for re-election this cycle in the Senate, or their seat is one that, due to demographics and gerrymandering, is quite safe for a general election.
However, there is a different issue, one that affects those electeds in purple states, anyone interested in the White House (aka anyone whose name begins with "Senator"), and really the party itself beyond 2020. It is the fact that people remember.
I don't mean the remembrance of things past that relate to policy. For example, it's true that the GOP has given up any pretense about budget deficits. They will be mocked at by many on Twitter when they claim to have re-found religion at the exact moment a Democrat again puts up drapes in the Oval Office. However budget deficits are a real problem and to those truly worried about deficits the return of their prodigal sons and daughters will be welcome. Furthermore, the GOP's new reliance on white working class voters means that their revised big tent still alllows for a variety of choose your own adventure options on a host of issues (If you think campaign money is your biggest problem and free trade is what the donors want, turn to page 14. If you are worried most about votes and need to support tariffs, turn to page 31).
Neither am I referring to process-related actions during this administration. While I still hold that there is no clear end in sight tit for tat payback, tributes have been paid from vice to virtue for a long time in politics and I do believe that on things like judicial appointments, gerrymandering, and the like, elections will have consequences and overreach has a tendency of reaping things that the sowers tend to regret later on.
What I am really referring to remembering how politicians responded to the "Trump question". This is a question that is visceral in nature, linked with our mid-brain source of so many tribal projections; a question that is felt more than considered. It is the question of whether these politicians stood up to Trump and Trumpism (or not). I think this distinction (cognitive vs. affective) is why the rationalizations often bandied about (judges, tax cuts, etc.) by never-never-Trumpers and the rest of the cognitively dissonant conservatives always seem so out of place. It's not that such arguments (judges, tax cuts, etc.) aren't illogical on their face, it's that these are modestly sized policy apples compared to the 800lb orange that is their essential submission to Trump. This kind of submission is elemental to the behavior of higher mammals who form packs, a political structure that far predates humanity itself. We remember who the king is and who dethroned them.
In the case of Trump, these politicians have relied on the idea that they are beholden to forces outside their control, that they are price takers. That is true, to a point. It is a rational way for them to keep their jobs in a time where Fox News and the POTUS twitter feed could likely sink a Saint among the Christian faithful.
What many of these individuals want, though, is to be the Alpha. This is where their rationale breaks down. To be an Alpha, you have to beat the Alpha. While coalition building is important in building a political base, and cooperation leads to benefits that include improved polling numbers, electoral politics is a zero-sum game and more often than not. mano-a-mano. For the presidential brass ring, this is even more true. The parties only get one leader and if you're in the pack and the alpha is there, there's only one way to get to the top.
This of course means that you have to fight Trump. You have to do a modern day version of bearing your teeth and growling.You have to take the full fury of the slings and arrows (280 characters at a time). You can't hedge and be "concerned" as that looks weak and hypocritical, but you can't roll your eyes in silence either, for human beings recognize that also is a form of being dominated. The latter might save your seat, but.....
They remember, in a deeply encoded way, the Alpha was never beaten. Sports, like the NBA, have innumerable examples of this idea.The Pistons dethroned the Lakers, the Bulls dethroned the Pistons, and while the Bulls crashed to earth in 1999, they were remembered differently in large part because they never got beat. Once Trump leaves office, he may stay on Twitter but he no longer be in a position to be fought with in the political arena. Any attempts by politicians to trash Trump will be thought of like Rocket's fans who might claim dynasty status for two titles while Jordan was playing baseball in the mid-90s. You didn't beat the king in the arena.
This brings us to the current juncture. I'll spare you all the roll call of apocalyptic horsemen that have been foisted upon us. We are all living through the accursed "interesting times" read about in our fortune cookies. I will however, point out that this moment is realistically the last possible moment for Republicans who seek to be a future leader of the party to actually take on the alpha. For sure, resistance now would be discounted in affective zeitgeist moving forward. May jobs numbers aside, Trump has never been weaker, in part due to the aforementioned crises both beyond and within his control. It's also late in the game, which means there is less time to build up credibility. There is also still risk, however, and that is why resistance would still be valued. If your (political) life is on the line when beefing with Trump, then you get more credit for it.
Take for example the curious cases of Ben Sasse and James Mattis. While Gen. Mattis very likely has little desire to achieve some form of dominance through his quite efficient evisceration of Trumpism the other day, Senator Sasse's more indirect play for posterity makes a lot of sense for someone who hopes, if not to be an acceptable presidential candidate someday, to at least be someone who can claim to have opposed the president when it mattered. Yes it was after the primary, but the critique still gets registered, opening up a potential window for the Senator to land a few more rhetorical punches before election day. Would I bet on more of this from them or others? Certainly not. Sometimes past performance is completely indicative of future behavior and in this case it's likely very close.
That said, these electeds should know that their window is closing. Once Trump is gone, they will still have to answer for their submission during his time in office. Any attempts to distance themselves (does anyone honestly think that the whole "I'm focused on the future" line will work in this context down the line?) or, even more, criticism of Trump will immediately be followed by Trump mocking them from beyond his political grave. And in this instance Trump will be right.
The next true leader of the party will be one of three people, someone who fought/dominated Trump, someone not at all on the scene right now, or Trump himself. Anything else won't make sense to our memories..