- - Monday, March 8, 2021

The fight for the future of the Republican Party is underway. Which faction will prevail?

Former President Donald Trump vowed to remain a force in party politics in a speech to die-hard activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 28, though he did not commit to running again for the White House in four years. 

Mr. Trump excoriated everyone from establishment Republicans to “radical left” Democrats and the “fake news media” — his familiar list of the disloyal and dangerous. His message was clear: any Republicans who voted for impeachment in the House or conviction in the Senate should be ousted by voters.

If the Reagan era is long over, and if the Tea Party has had its day, the makeup of a post-Trump Republican Party, as well as the broader conservative movement, remains unclear. What is left of the so-called establishment, personified by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, appears to have tired of Trump in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 mob insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But among voters, Trump may still be the most popular Republican politician in the country by a wide margin.

“It’s unclear, though, where this is all going. In the short run, Donald Trump is very much a factor in the Republican Party, to say the least. He’s a king of president-in-exile because they’ve declared Biden illegitimate. He’s still very much a force, but he’s not going to last forever,” said Princeton historian Sean Wilentz in an interview for the latest episode of History As It Happens podcast.

“The question is, what happens to the Republican Party thereafter,” said Wilentz, the author of ‘The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008.’ “That, I think, is really unclear.”

Wilentz, one of the preeminent political and social historians in the U.S., contends the Reagan era ended with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, but there are important continuities between Reaganism and current Republican party politics.

“It’s not to say that the forces that were unleashed by Reagan’s presidency, in the Republican Party in particular, came to a halt. But I do think from the mid-nineties onward there was a radicalization of the party,” said Wilentz.

Among the continuities witnessed under Trump, Wilentz points to regressive income tax cuts, deregulation of private industry, and the appointment of conservative judges to the federal bench — all pillars of Reaganism.

But the GOP’s turn toward what Wilentz calls “electoral Bolshevism” marked a significant departure from Reagan’s sunny optimism and political pragmatism. Legislative obstructionism, the elevation of ideology over pragmatism, and the focus on cultural and social issues, such as gay rights or abortion, marked the radical shift, in the Princeton scholar’s view.  

For more on historian Sean Wilentz’s thoughts on the future of the Republican Party, as well as his views of the achievements and setbacks of the age of Reagan, listen to this episode of ‘History As It Happens.’

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