It’s Primary Season for Right-Wing Populism | Kieran Everson
For the last couple of weeks, it has been widely speculated that Donald Trump intends to form a party of his own – the ‘Patriot Party’. True or not, a third-party run is not the way forward. In this post-Trump political landscape, there is a conservative power vacuum. There is also an instinct amongst some on the right to flee the GOP entirely, form a new party, and begin contesting elections under Trump’s brand.
This has been done before, of course, and had the disastrous consequences you would expect. After being snubbed at the 1912 Republican primaries, Theodore Roosevelt decided to create his own political party. He was a popular and charismatic figure who, at his own convention, articulated a ‘new nationalism’ – is this sounding familiar yet? The result of this ego-driven presidential run was a victory for Woodrow Wilson, arguably one of the worst leaders in the country’s history. We are still haunted by Wilsonian foreign policy today, and that is largely due to the narcissism of one man. We have already seen the personality flaws of Trump, and it seems ridiculous that right-wing populism should be tied to one man.
There are other cases of modern third-party runs which got nowhere – such as Thurmond and Perot – but hopefully you get the point by now. In US politics, the house always wins. Full stop. Instead, the American right needs to grow up and use the tools at its disposal to really make a dent in politics.
So, what tools are at their disposal? I see two glaring ones which should be the focus of their political efforts. The first is, still, the power of Donald Trump. The man is nothing short of a political institution. He has built a strong base around his populism and is able to raise money for election war chests with a snap of his fingers. This is not news to anyone. His supporters are aware of this weapon but are confused about where to point it. The second is the Republican primary elections, and this is the opportunity which could cement Trumpism as a permanent wing of the GOP.
Do not be mistaken, I am not talking about presidential primaries here. The 2024 ground is well-trodden and is mostly dominated by the politically-illiterate who believe the establishment would ever allow themselves to be blindsided by a populist again. No, I am talking about the primaries for house, senate, and gubernatorial elections.
Primaries offer a unique opening for populists, both left-wing and right-wing. Democratic socialists have been using them effectively for years now, which makes perfect sense as their movement is defined by its strong grassroots organisation. It was also weaponised by the right during the Obama years. I believe a lot of lessons can be learnt from the Tea Party in general – their mission was actually similar to the contemporary challenge for the British right. They sought to fix the Republican Party, their only realistic chance at political representation, through social conservatism and populist rhetoric. ‘If only we had primaries in the UK’, you will say – and that is the point! Open primaries are a goldmine, an opportunity for political insurgencies against weak establishment candidates. Trump is well aware of this as during his presidency he applied pressure on primaries across the country, weakening his enemies by denying them positions of legislative power. This is true influence over the direction of conservatism, the kind which could never come from focusing attention on a third-party presidential run.
Trump has already seen great success when interfering with GOP primaries, mobilising his strong base to rally against his establishment enemies. The most successful example was the 2020 Alabama senate race, where former football coach Tommy Tuberville beat former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Republican primary. The president was able to get revenge on his former ally by backing an outsider. Tuberville went on to beat the incumbent Democrat senator and has since been a key loyalist – objecting to the electoral votes of both Arizona and Pennsylvania. Trump used the same tactic on Congressman Mark Sanford, a prominent Republican critic of the President, by supporting insurgent conservative Katie Arrington. While she went on to lose the election, Trump was able to remove a source of GOP rebellion from the House and send a message to any other such moderates: the establishment cannot save you. The question is: who is next? Which political opponents will Trump be eyeing up for a primary upset? His enemies list is long, and his pockets are deep.
Governors were thrust into national prominence in 2020 for two reasons, and thus were given two chances to annoy the president: butting heads with him over the Coronavirus response and, perhaps most importantly to Trump, refusing to investigate his claims of election fraud. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, in particular, has been singled out as a potential target. Kemp angered the President by refusing to challenge Biden’s win in the key state. In the aftermath, Trump has tweeted mockeries of him and even encouraged Congressman Doug Collins to run in 2022 during a speech. Collins has been an ally for years, publicly supporting the Soleimani assassination and using his position as a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee to defend the President during the Ukraine scandal. Loyalist governors give Trump a chance to use states as a microcosm for national policy platforms, just as Ron DeSantis has done with anti-lockdown policies in Florida. Thinking longer term, governors could be particularly important political allies in the Republican presidential primaries. A large part of Trump’s appeal came from being a Washington outsider, and so it may be a hard sell if he is to pass the torch of right-wing populism to a senator or congressman. A governor could serve as the logical next step for Trumpism – still an outsider but equipped with the political skills its namesake lacked.
The House of Representatives may be Trump’s most obvious target, with one name on everyone’s lips: Liz Cheney. She appears to be continuing the family tradition of being the living, breathing embodiment of the Republican establishment. Cheney – who is chair of the House Republican Conference – has been a critic of the administration for a while, but recent events have put her in the national spotlight. Namely, her and nine other House Republicans siding with the Democrats by voting to impeach the President. This will be the spark that lights the party on fire. I imagine that Cheney would be the first casualty of Trump’s primary strategy, with her seat up for grabs in 2022. One of Trump’s house loyalists, Matt Gaetz, has already taken the fight to her state of Wyoming by leading demonstrations condemning her actions. Gaetz, and other loyalist congressmen like Jim Jordan, have been key figures over the last four years. Their continued presence in post-Trump politics, and their outspoken nature, will be a key part of what keeps the populist wing of the party relevant.
There have been huge conflicts between President Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate. They have come to represent the strongest power centre of the GOP establishment, betraying much of his agenda during the last four years – but no senator has betrayed Trump more than Mitt Romney. There is more than political anguish between the two, their feud has clearly become personal. Romney became the figurehead for the remnants of the Never Trump movement, being regularly wheeled out in front of the cameras by left-wing pundits to voice his disgust at whatever campaign pledge the President was carrying out at the time. In many ways, Romney can be seen as similar to Joe Biden: a moderate, socially liberal, media-backed insider who wants a ‘return to normalcy’, which in the GOP apparently means modelling yourself on the losing centre-right candidates from recent general elections. He is the embodiment of all which Trump wanted to change in the party, and if not removed from the senate he will be a constant thorn in the side of Republican populists. The success of Tuberville shows that attacking the party establishment through senate primary elections is a viable tactic and creates important allies in the legislature.
Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump’s populist agenda was opposed by Washington. His fellow Republicans worked tirelessly to undermine his influence and water down his legislative agenda. This was expected as he had very few allies inside the Capitol – his status as a political outsider was a clear weakness. That has changed. I would argue that he is now in a position to become the most dangerous outsider in US politics, quite literally working outside of the system by consolidating power behind the scenes. Imagine a political giant with the ability to raise billions of dollars in funding, as well as a grassroots movement stronger than any Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt. A man who always preferred campaigning to actual day-to-day administration. Now imagine that this man is no longer constrained by the Oval Office, no longer having to play by the rules of the presidency or be chained by the accountability that comes with it. Post-presidency, Donald Trump is free. He once again has access to his business empire, while retaining the following of his base. His current predicament is a huge political opportunity to influence the American right from a position of supreme authority without accountability. The Trump Revolution is far from over. Ousted from the Oval Office, Trump has his sights set now on the Republican party itself.