Hosting a 24-year-old avowed white nationalist and internet provocateur named Nick Fuentes for dinner last week, along with the musician and entrepreneur Kanye West—who’s put himself in Fuentes’s company after making a series of anti-Semitic public statements—the former U.S. president Donald Trump brought on yet another moment of controversy in America. Condemnations came from across the political spectrum—including from prominent Republican politicians and conservative media figures who until recently, even after the U.S. Capitol riot in 2021, had been reluctant ever to criticize Trump. But with a slate of candidates he endorsed having lost their races in this year’s midterm elections—notably, the 2020 “election deniers” who’ve refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidency—many Republicans have begun publicly blaming Trump for their party’s overall electoral failures. Meanwhile, as the former president announced his own candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, influential media outlets on the right are now promoting Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis as the better bet—“DeFuture,” as a New York Post headline put it. But Trump still has powerful allies and broad support in the Republican base, assets that have made him untouchable in the party since 2016. Is something different this time?
A.B. Stoddard is an American journalist who’s covered U.S. politics for decades, now an associate editor and columnist with RealClearPolitics. To Stoddard, while it’s unusual how right-wing elites have started to speak out against Trump and his influence in the Republican Party, it’s not at all clear how long this behavior will last. Though DeSantis and a number of other would-be candidates are already pitching themselves as alternative directions for the party, no one really knows yet how many Republican voters actually want to go in an alternative direction—and ultimately, Republican voters are the only constituency that matters. Whatever happens, Stoddard thinks, there’s no evidence that these voters will support anything other than some version of the populist politics Trump won over their party with—let alone that they’ll turn back to the style of conservatism that dominated the party before him.
Graham Vyse: What do you make of all the losses among candidates Trump supported in the recent U.S. midterms?
A.B. Stoddard: A lot of Democratic voters would like to think this election demonstrated that Americans roundly reject election deniers. I don’t think it’s that straightforward. Many Americans, who may not have much awareness about the question of U.S. democracy being in peril, nonetheless showed up to vote on the issue of abortion access—less than five months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended a national right to abortion. Young voters don’t often vote in midterm elections—and many of them don’t even know what midterm elections are—but the Court’s decision infuriated them. It caused a spike in voter registration among young Americans—young American women, in particular—which helped Democrats and hurt Republicans.
Meanwhile, many independent voters thought that many Republican candidates were outlandish. We saw a lot of Americans split their tickets, voting for candidates of both parties, demonstrating that some voters are still persuadable—even in such a politically polarized country. We saw a rejection of candidates who seemed too extreme, with Trump-backed and election-denying candidates in particular not doing well. But that factor on its own—the aversion to extremists, Trump allies, and election deniers—is mixed in with all these others. Parsing them out isn’t simple.
Vyse: What are some of the broader significant patterns you see in the election results?
Stoddard: Hispanic support for Democrats continued to erode. Now, some people will tell you the erosion has “stabilized” since 2020, but the reality is that Hispanics are leaving the Democratic Party, and Democrats need those voters in their coalition. Ultimately, this year’s election results are confusing for both parties, because neither seems able to correct for its problems: Republicans might say their losses were Trump’s fault, but some voters may have been focused on the extreme anti-abortion laws that went into effect across a number of U.S. states after the Supreme Court’s decision.
It’s plausible that Democrats’ messages on cultural issues are playing a role in repelling working-class Black and Hispanic voters, sending them into the arms of the Republican Party. Many Hispanic voters don’t believe themselves to be “Brown”; they identify as white, they’re interested in Republicans’ economic messages, and they’re alienated—just as working-class white Republicans are—by “woke” ideology, especially the anti-police rhetoric that got very loud in 2020. Democrats managed to quiet that rhetoric down in 2022, but it’s still threatening to their party politically, because of the issues of crime. They largely ignored that issue in this election, even as spikes in crime scared voters from both parties and in all kinds of neighborhoods—urban, suburban, and exurban. The Democratic Party mostly pretended it wasn’t happening, but many Black and Brown voters want more police in their neighborhoods. They’re concerned for their personal security. This is a serious political liability for Democrats, and this year’s election hasn’t forced the party to reckon with it.
We saw a rejection of candidates who seemed too extreme, with Trump-backed and election-denying candidates in particular not doing well. But that factor on its own—the aversion to extremists, Trump allies, and election deniers—is mixed in with all these others. Parsing them out isn’t simple.
Vyse: How do you see the way elected Republican leaders have been reacting to the midterms?
Stoddard: Mitch McConnell, the Republican Minority Leader in the U.S. Senate, acknowledged that swing voters, voters who might go either way in an election, were scared of his party’s candidates. He’d previously warned about the party’s problems with “candidate quality.” A significant number of Republican politicians are also blaming Trump—for candidate quality and for the Republicans’ electoral performance overall. But it’s important to keep in mind that it was Republican voters who chose this year’s candidates. Trump wasn’t on the ballot. And just because Republican leaders are criticizing him now, it doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily see a consequential shift in their party. This criticism might be temporary.
Take Bill Barr, for example, who was Trump’s attorney general, recently said that Trump should step aside, warning that he “will burn the whole house down” by leading “his people” out of the party if he loses the primary in 2024. At the same time, Barr is saying he’d support Trump if he won the primary.
Vyse: Thinking about the groups officially outside the party that constantly shape its direction, such as donors and media figures, what patterns do you see in the ways they’re responding to the moment?
Stoddard: Donors are ready to move on from Trump, but they’re afraid to give money to his main rival, Ron DeSantis, too soon. There’s a lot of hedging and hoping and waiting going on. Trump’s announcement of his 2024 candidacy got some pretty rough reviews in the media.
Vyse: Including in the right-wing media.
Stoddard: Yes. This is tired. Trump is over. But again, that doesn’t mean these people won’t come back to Trump in the end. We have no idea if DeSantis even has it in him to take Trump on in 2024. He’s only 44 years old, and, as Vanity Fair has reported, he knows he could opt to run in 2028 after serving a full second term as governor. If DeSantis waits it out, and Trump wins the 2024 primaries with a plurality of the vote, everyone in the party will probably come back to Trump. America’s right-wing media would likely come back to him, taking up his narrative that everyone running against him in the primary was part of the establishment and part of the elite—“RiNOs,” people who are “Republican In Name Only.”
For now, the United States is in something of a no man’s land. We don’t even know how this 2024 campaign is going to start. Will Republican Party leaders be able to narrow their field of potential candidates, ensuring that only a few end up running? Can the elites say, If there’s a big field of candidates, like in 2016, Trump will manage a plurality win, and we don’t want that? How are those kinds of conversations going to go? Political-party elites no longer have the ability to choose their presidential candidates.
It’s important to keep in mind that it was Republican voters who chose this year’s candidates. Trump wasn’t on the ballot. And just because Republican leaders are criticizing him now, it doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily see a consequential shift in their party. This criticism might be temporary.
Vyse: You’ve mentioned DeSantis. How do you look at the ways Trump’s other potential rivals are positioning themselves?
Stoddard: It's hard to know at this point. Larry Hogan, the moderate Republican governor of Maryland, will present himself as an effective executive who’s worked with Democrats and gained an impressive amount of support from Black and Hispanic voters, independent voters, and even Democratic voters. Does he have a chance to win, given the state of the Republican presidential primary electorate? I don’t think so.
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, and former Trump ally, now sounds very anti-Trump. New Hampshire’s Governor Chris Sununu wouldn’t be a Trump-like candidate, but he’d try to speak to the party’s populist base in some way. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and a former Trump-appointed ambassador to the United Nations, could run as a candidate strong on policy, as could Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state. Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president, could try to be a fusion candidate: He’s aligned with Evangelical Christians; he loved all of Trump’s policies and couldn’t be prouder of his service in the Trump administration; but he broke with Trump in a high-profile way over the January 6th riot. He could argue that he saved America’s constitutional order that day.
Then there are a bunch of other senators and governors—Tim Scott, Rick Scott, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Asa Hutchinson—but it’s hard to categorize these people and figure out how they’d play with primary voters. It’s going to come down to whether Republican voters respond to policy discussions, which many of the governors will want to have, or if they demand a culture warrior in Trump’s style. They may like DeSantis simply because he’s a fighter, not because they like his record of governance beyond opposing pandemic restrictions. They may be looking for candidates who’ll bash each other on stage. We don’t yet know how much of the primary electorate really wants to move on from Trump and his style of politics.
If I were setting out to win the Republican nomination in 2024, I’d position myself as a populist, someone who’s against the elites, someone who’s very focused on immigration and the culture of American education. “Parents’ rights” is an extremely resonant theme among Republicans. I wouldn’t talk about health-care or entitlement reforms. This Republican Party is largely uninterested in limited government. It’s much more interested in a durable social-safety net, which is what Trump promised his voters. He said he wouldn’t cut their Social Security or Medicare, and that was important to them. On foreign policy, Republican tend to think they have to be quite isolationist these days.
This Republican Party is largely uninterested in limited government. It’s much more interested in a durable social-safety net, which is what Trump promised his voters. He said he wouldn’t cut their Social Security or Medicare, and that was important to them.
I will be curious to see who’s still a capitalist in the Republican Party, who’s turned off by the kind of authoritarian-socialist style of politics DeSantis is drawing on in Florida as a culture warrior—using the arm of the state to batter private businesses like Disney. That sort of thing wouldn’t have been acceptable to traditional Republicans. It’s new to the party in the Trump era, and the base loves it, but how much does the rest of the Republican electorate like it? How much do voters want to see Trump’s rivals attack him? A lot of Trump voters supported Roe v. Wade and don’t like tax cuts for the wealthy; they want to tax the wealthy. The politics are getting complicated.
Vyse: Despite the emerging signs of resistance on the right to Trump returning after the elections, he’s since announced his 2024 candidacy. How are you interpreting Trump’s reaction to the election results—and to criticism of some of his recent behavior, even among media outlets that have generally supported him, such as having dinner with Nick Fuentes and Kanye West?
Stoddard: Donald Trump doesn't course correct. He doesn’t back down. He doesn’t care about all this post-mortem analysis of the election. If you saw the kind of things he’s been posting on Truth Social, the social networking platform he founded, you might be inclined to send him some heavy medication. His posts are all about how everyone’s out to get him. He said he didn’t know who Nick Fuentes was, but Trump won’t disavow him or white supremacy or anti-semitism.
Trump sees DeSantis as a very serious threat in 2024, so he’s privately doing what he can to undermine DeSantis. He’s also planning to argue the Republican Party must fight for him in the face of potential indictments by the U.S. Justice Department or the State of Georgia, and that’s going to be a challenge for Trump’s rivals in the 2024 primary. Are any of them going to be willing to voice support for Biden’s Justice Department and say the investigation is fair and Trump may have done something criminal?
Vyse: You’ve covered American politics since the 1990s. How have you seen the Republican Party, and the conservative politics around it, change since then?
Stoddard: Trump changed the party in important and fascinating ways—but the electorate also changed, which Republican elites failed to appreciate before Trump came to power. Many voters were having trouble anchoring themselves in the middle class, affording mortgages, car loans, and college educations for their children. They didn’t want to scale down Medicare and Social Security; the prospect of doing that scared them. They weren’t supportive of free trade any longer.
Before Trump was a political candidate, he had his aides listen to right-wing talk radio and hear what the Republican base was upset about. It was largely immigration and trade. Debates over those issues are convulsing democracies around the world, along with fights over nationalism, socialism, and populism. A lot of the orthodoxies of the old Republican Party—beliefs in limited government, in returning public money to taxpayers, in the government staying out of the private sector, in the United States playing a leading role on the world stage—disappeared after Trump rose to power. The Republican Party is just a totally different party than it used to be.
And American politics as a whole is totally different than it used to be. The parties are weaker, and they can’t stop electoral insurgencies. Voters don’t have to accept the leadership of elites that they once accepted. They can elect someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has no congressional-committee assignments but raises tons of money through small donations. There isn’t the kind of gatekeeping that there once was. The new system is more responsive to voters—and my sense is that the candidates running for president in 2024 are going to be surprised by what voters want.