Populism is the GOP's Path to Future Victories | Opinion

With little more than a week to go before the election, Republicans are nervous—and with good reason. President Donald Trump trails badly in the national polls and in most of the battleground states. Democrats and the small band of Never Trump conservatives can barely contain their glee.

There are still good reasons for Republicans to cling to hope. But the odds right now point toward a victory for former vice president Joe Biden and, even worse for Republicans, the very real possibility of a wave election, in which a blue tide powered by coronavirus misery and Trump fatigue will sweep the Democrats into control of both houses of Congress as well as the White House.

Never Trump Republicans and Democrats have been writing the post mortems on a 2020 GOP defeat for the last four years. Their rage about 2016 produced a never-ending stream of commentary about why the party that supported the president in office will be punished with the fires of political hell: defeat, humiliation and irrelevance for the foreseeable future.

A New York Times editorial spiced with quotes from Never Trumpers like Peter Wehner and Stuart Stevens handed down a death sentence for Republicans, saying the only thing to be done with the Trumpified GOP was to "burn it to the ground and start over." If the polls are right, we shall be hearing a lot more from such Never Trumpers as they do touchdown dances on what they hope will be the ashes of the party they abandoned.

But even before the inevitable deluge of "how to rebuild the GOP by purging it of Trumpism" articles, it's important to understand a few key truths about the current Republican Party and how it can rebound if it loses next week.

A 2020 GOP defeat, if it comes, will be the result of two factors, neither of which figure into the justifications for the death sentence pronounced upon the party.

One is the COVID pandemic, which destroyed a booming economy and called into question the administration's competence—even though Democrats' claims that Trump is responsible for all of the deaths caused by the disease, or that Hillary Clinton or Biden would have done any better, are patently false.

The other is Trump fatigue. Even those who like many of his policy decisions are tired of his unpresidential personality, his tweets and his over-the-top crudeness. Too many of those who might otherwise be persuaded that the Democratic alternative is terrible, simply want a rest from Trump.

But as much as Republicans are blamed for enabling the Trump show, the idea that they abandoned their principles or sold their souls to him is false.

At the heart of the dismay felt by the clique of Never Trumper strategists and mainstream media columnists are notions about class and manners. Trump's personal style cost Republicans support among women and college-educated voters. But his willingness to stand up for working-class Americans on issues they care about and to which GOP elites were indifferent or hostile—like trade and immigration—reflected exactly the sort of expansion of the traditional Republican base that the party needed.

Trump rally
Supporters cheer as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a Make America Great Again campaign rally at Lancaster Airport in Lititz, Pennsylvania, October 26, 2020. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

The hoi polloi that establishment Republicans viewed with contempt—even though many understood that winning back the working-class Democrats who once voted for Ronald Reagan was essential for winning elections—delighted in Trump's tweaking of the governing and educated classes. But to the elites who spent the last few decades benefiting from the network of GOP institutions that sustained the party establishment, the hostile takeover of the party by Trump was a personal disaster. That it happened at the hands of someone they thought of as an oaf who has as much contempt for them as he did for liberal elites was particularly humiliating.

Many in the party feared that Trump would trash conservatism. But his four years in government proved the contrary. If, as polls show, more than 90 percent of Republicans stuck with him, it was not because they switched their positions but because he converted to their beliefs. On social issues, religious liberty, gun rights, the courts and curtailing illegal immigration, the former New York liberal proved more faithful and more successful in pursuing the right's policy goals than his establishment predecessors.

Even on those issues on which many Republicans feared his ideas would be disastrous, Trump's governance—if not always his tweets and other offhand remarks—turned out to be sound policy. More importantly, his differences with what was thought to be essential Republicanism on trade and foreign policy didn't lead to isolationism but to a smarter, more relevant Republican Party, as his successes on NAFTA and in the Middle East demonstrated.

Where does that leave Republicans if November 3 brings a Democratic sweep?

Former GOP elites who were shouldered aside in the last four years are not getting their old party back. That's not just because conservatives will rightly never forgive turncoats who helped usher into power what is likely to be the most left-wing administration in living memory.

It's because the populism that Trump weaponized against D.C. big shots isn't a politics of resentment. It's the only way forward for a party that must be ready to strike back in 2022. Biden's administration would almost certainly pass policies that will outrage moderates and tank an economy badly hurt by tax increases, the reversal of Trump's regulatory reform and extreme Green New Deal boondoggles. Court packing or attempts to make the District of Columbia and/or Puerto Rico states will also disabuse suburban voters who thought they were getting normalcy rather than a left-wing revolution.

The way to galvanize GOP support in the midterms and to prepare to defeat the Democrats in 2024 will be to bring out the same grassroots working-class voters who elected Trump. Republicans won't be able to do that by reviving fiscal hawk purity or knee-jerk free trade policies but by pointing out they are the ones who will, as Trump did before the pandemic, raise wages for workers while defending their jobs. They'll need to stand against open borders and amnesty. They'll need to stand for realism about traditional allies and against the discredited foreign policy establishment that supported endless wars that Republican voters no longer support.

The Democrats' embrace of critical race theory, demonization of law enforcement and a Black Lives Matter movement determined to portray America as an irredeemably racist nation may be a bridge too far for moderate liberals. Yet timid recycled Bush-era moderate Republicans who fear being attacked on race issues will flinch from confronting these destructive radical ideas. Only a populist GOP that is unafraid, as Trump is, to denounce them will lead the party back to victory.

Successful Republicans will run on the conservative principles the president defended and successfully implemented. They will also, as Trump did, abandon a Queensberry rules approach to fighting their opponents. Liberals had no scruples about employing a biased media and the censorship of conservatives implemented by big tech and social media giants. The outrageous attempts by elements of the government bureaucracy, aided by the mainstream press, to derail the administration via false Russian-collusion conspiracy theories and to silence critics must not be forgotten in post-election analysis. What the right will need is more politicians prepared to fight as hard as Trump did.

While Trump's mistakes, rooted in a petulant personality and lack of discipline, should be avoided, only a Republican Party that channels the president's ruthless energy and desire to appeal to ordinary Americans rather than D.C. elites will be able to capitalize on the Democrats' mistakes that are sure to come.

Right now, the 2022 midterms and the 2024 election cycle seem like lifetimes away. But the one thing we know for sure is that the only way back after a possible defeat this year will be more conservative populism and the fighting spirit of Trump's GOP, not a better-behaved Republican Party that is willing to lose like ladies and gentlemen.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org, a senior contributor for The Federalist and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.