Tanzina Vega: It's The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. State election officials from both parties across the country have said there is no evidence of fraud in this election and that's according to new reporting from The New York Times, and yet days after the election was called for Joe Biden, President Trump is still refusing to concede and that's signaling that the President's hold on the Republican Party and its supporters remains strong.
So far only a handful of prominent GOP members like senators Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski have even acknowledged Joe Biden's victory, but whether the president's hold on the party will remain after he leaves the White House is less clear. That's where we begin today. Joining me now is Nicholas Lemann, staff writer for The New Yorker. Nicholas, welcome to The Takeaway.
Nicholas Lemann: Thank you.
Tanzina: Also, with us as Brendan Buck, Republican strategist at Seven Letter and a former aide to Republican speakers of the House, John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Brendan, welcome to the show.
Brendan Buck: Great to be with you.
Tanzina: Let's start with you Brendan, Donald Trump is refusing to concede and Republican leaders are standing by him for the most part. Why does Trump have such a grip on the Republican Party even today?
Brendan: Because he continues to have a grip on Republican voters. We've long talked, I think, theoretically about the stranglehold that the President has, but we actually right now have a really clear evidence of that, because there's a Georgia Senate race and I think that that example is really what cements this. He has taken hostage voters, Republican voters, and there is a Senate race, two of them down in Georgia, that will decide the outcome of who controls the Senate.
If the President were to turn on those two senators, were to say that you're not fighting hard enough for me, there are real consequences for those Republicans running down there and the Senate could go to Democrats. I think that the Republicans in Washington and certainly the Republicans in Georgia don't want to upset him, because they know that he's taken hostage the voters and if he turns on them, the bottom could fall out.
Tanzina: Nicholas, when you hear what Brendan is saying, I mean, I think there are a lot of people who support the President, there are other folks who are incredulous about what's happening. What are your thoughts on how President Trump has been able to really continue to capture, not just the voters, but also Mitch McConnell and other top GOP officials?
Nicholas: First of all, I agree 100% with Brendan's analysis that he just gave so I won't repeat that. I think you should be a little careful about this if you thinking medium to long-term. Look at the words that Mitch McConnell and others are saying really carefully. What they're not saying is, "We believe President Trump won this election and there is clear evidence of voter fraud."
That's what the president has said, but outside of his very inner circle of super loyalists, you're instead hearing variations on the theme of, "We're not ready to declare this over. We want this investigated." As Brendan said, that's a signal to Republican base voters and a way of forestalling a revenge strategy by the President. But remember that you can argue at least that in last week's election the party ran ahead of President Trump.
I suspect that a lot of these leaders know that this is all going to end with the President Biden and that they feel some relief over that prospect that they don't have to deal with somebody as volatile and as vengeful and as not in touch with reality as the President evidently is. I think this issue will get resolved, but the larger question is really interesting, which is, what's President Trump going to do next year and the year after?
Tanzina: We definitely want to talk about his role as it relates to the GOP longer-term in just a minute. Brendan, I'm curious about why? You mentioned the stranglehold that the president has on a lot of GOP voters. Why are folks so afraid of losing what's been called Trump's base? Why is that such a fearful thing and even incurring the President's wrath himself?
Brendan: Because he's the party at this point. We are not in a situation where Republicans are defined by any particular policy or principles. Today republicans are defined by how much you support Donald Trump. You can actually s--
Tanzina: Has GOP been taken over by Trumpism, Brendan?
Brendan: Oh, absolutely. I don't dispute that at all and it's not really the wing of the party, the populist wing that I'm from, but I would definitely conceive that he has taken over. Look, you can't win elections if your base is discouraged. I think what everybody is concerned about-- this cuts both ways. The President is out there telling everyone that elections are rigged and there's voting fraud.You can look at that, but that's going to motivate Republicans and they're going to be fired up and they're going to want to make their voice heard.
My concern, long-term, for Republicans is that the President has such power over these voters that they're going to start to think that it's not worth coming out and voting. I think that is a something to look for in the long haul. Yes, he has complete control and you can't just walk away and basically distance yourself from him because he'll come after you and we've seen that many times.
It's not so much that they're afraid of him. I think that's the important distinction. They're afraid of what will happen to their constituencies, their coalitions of voters that bring them back. The only election that most Republicans care about and most members of Congress for that matter is their primary. If you have a bunch of Trump voters, and that is basically the bulk of the party right now, thinking that you're a sellout or you're not fighting, or you're against Donald Trump, God forbid, that means that they're not going to vote for you.
In a primary, that's all that matters. You've got party leaders who are looking to be the standard-bearer for the next election if Donald Trump doesn't run and all of them know that they can't alienate Trump voters. There is a very, very small percentage of Republicans who are not firmly in the Trump camp these days and it's just bad politics alienate them.
Tanzina: Nicholas, when you hear that, let's talk about some of the ways the Trump administration has changed the party permanently, because I think they're long-- during this administration there've been conversations about are the GOP voters, Trump voters, are they Trumpists, are they not? What Brendan is saying is essentially that's what's taken over the party. What ways has Trump changed the party?
Nicholas: First of all, I'm not as sure as Brendan is of that assertion. I think things could look different in a year or in the run-up to the 2022 elections when President Trump has been out of office for a while and he doesn't have that incredible bully pulpit of the presidency that allows him to have the attention, including us in the media, 100% of the time. There have been people like this all over the world and throughout history, including in the US, and their stars do fade and his may fade. I think the impact on the party is pretty clear, at least for now.
I'll just tick off a number of things what he introduced in the 2016 election cycle that weren't on the whole where the party was, but now is where the party is and that would be anti-immigrant nativism, ethnonationalism, skepticism of free trade, much more uncritical attitude toward the size of government and government programs, the basic libertarian Reaganite stance, also internationalism, all those things that were thought to be the soul of the Republican Party, they're not anymore, and not add to that list, for 100, 125 years you could say, "Look, at base, the Republicans are the party of business."
I don't think that's necessarily true anymore. Now, the Republicans of the party that attacks Wall Street and Silicon Valley and big business, at least, on the whole, is obviously very eager for President Biden to take office. That's a reversal of American political history.
Tanzina: Brendan, I'm curious about why it was President Trump who-- this is something that's been building for quite some time, but President Trump really was able to galvanize his voters and his supporters and his base under all of the tenants that Nicholas just laid out. Why was it so simple to do that in a lot of ways? What I mean by simple as that we've seen this real increase in the political polarization of Americans, particularly under this administration, in ways that I think many Americans have been shocked, including Republicans.
What was it? Was it a rebuke to the Obama administration? Was it the fact that the President was able to tap into aggrieved Americans who felt that this was the right message? How was he able to do that?
Brendan: I certainly think that he was able to tap into a feeling that a lot of people had, that nobody cared about them. It's important to appreciate that the populist side of their party has always existed. There has always been anti-immigrant, anti-trade Republicans. Pat Buchanan is a great example of someone who tried to lead a movement previously. As a party, we've always just tried to tamp that down or appease it to the degree that we can, because most people believe that the policies are bad, but he was able to take a combination of a, his personality and the way he draws attention to himself, unending media attention and tap into that part of the party that had been feeling very ignored for a long time and then brought all those together and it was powerful.
It was a part of our party that had been basically bottled up and when they finally had someone who wanted you to speak for them, they came out in droves. Then, it doesn't hurt that he has a lot of people in conservative media who have jumped on board and are diehards for what he does. He's got a lot going for him at this point. I don't think anything is forever in politics.
I don't want to give that impression, but I don't see what changes the dynamic right now, because the incentive structure is such that the voters are still going to be listening to him because we have a conservative media ecosystem that didn't exist in those previous instances. He will still be able to have a very loud voice. I think it's an open question, how the media handles him, the mainstream media, do they continue to follow everything that he does? But between his Twitter account and other news networks and websites, he's still going to have a really large voice and he's already made clear that his kids are interested in being part of the party. I personally wish that we would be able to move on, but I don't think that the party's going to be able to do that because he won't let it.
Tanzina: Nicholas, do you think he can do it?
Nicholas: That President Trump can do it, if you define that as keep everybody-- [crosstalk]
Tanzina: Keep everyone in line, at least for now?
Nicholas: No. If we're asking a year out, will he be where he is now on that measure? I would predict no.
Tanzina: I want to just to really look at what role you think Donald Trump could play post-presidency, particularly if we think that his star will not be as bright given a year or after a year or two pass. Where do you think he would stand?
Nicholas: Question number one would be, will he run for president in the 2024 cycle? He doesn't have to say that now, but that would be pertinent and one sees a lot of speculation. President hasn't seen fit to call me and clue me in on his plan so I don't know, but that's an interesting question. Plan B would he annoy say Donald Trump Jr. as the carrier of the mantle and he would run in 2024.
The other thing that's been speculated a lot about is that he'll take over or create some giant media platform that would be his base in the media. For example, and I'm just speculating here, Rush Limbaugh is terminally ill and very close to the President. The President gave him the medal of freedom, not too long ago. That would be a good platform for him or people have said he might start a TV network called Trump TV.
What I don't think he'll do is follow the pattern of George W. Bush and take up painting and live a quiet life out of the limelight. That's not going to happen, but remember lot of people want to be in the limelight and only a small portion of them succeed in getting the attention that they want. I don't think it's a given that he'll be able to keep at his current level of national obsession.
Tanzina: Brendan, I recall a couple of a presidential elections ago after the GOP did not win under Barack Obama and they decided they had to do a post-mortem. They had to reevaluate what they were missing. One of the big things that they thought they were missing were Republicans of color, voters of color more outreach. Did this election show that the GOP will do just fine without that outreach?
Brendan: I don't know that it shows that they will do just fine, but that is definitely what Republicans are internalizing. It's remarkable. It is a rare feat to have an incumbent president voted out of office. We're seeing that and instead of grappling with what happened, what you're seeing is Republicans feel like they had a great night. A lot of that is because down-ballot house and Senate Republicans did better than expected, but there is no sense among Republicans that there needs to be a change of course.
There was a little bit of improvement with Hispanic voters. I guess it's notable, but this is not a party that has ever really grappled with itself or put itself on the couch to think through what we stand for. We don't learn our lessons very well, but I don't even think there's an effort to learn any lessons from losing here. It's interesting. Democrats seem to be more introspective at this point about what happened and why they didn't do better, where Republicans, even though they're losing the White House, feel very strongly that Trumpism is the way to go. Even if they don't think it's the way to go, they don't really have a choice because of what we talked about before with the President's control over voters.
Tanzina: I want to talk a little bit about that, because, Nicholas, I'm wondering if any efforts to-- we have seen some Republicans, largely I would say probably the most well-known among this branch, if you will, are the Lincoln Project who have galvanized lots of money, lots of big names, including Michael Steele who we've had here on The Takeaway recently, to talk about what they're doing to try and reform or gather some Republican supporters, but is that enough?
Are we witnessing really a splintering of the party where you might have some folks who are Lincoln Party or Lincoln Project acolytes and others who were just Trumpist, pure through and through?
Nicholas: Yes, I think there's going to be, and there already is-- I disagree with what Brendan said somewhat. I think you're seeing and will continue to see a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and by the way, also in the Democratic Party. We've had the same two major parties in this country for 160 years, which is weird and the death of one or the other has often been predicted and they haven't died. If you only have two parties in the country this huge, it means that each party has a coalition that is very diverse and doesn't make sense.
I think the Republican ability, in particular, to make inroads among Latino voters with a non-Trump candidate is more meaningful. George W. Bush in his re-election campaign got over 40% of the Latino vote. I think you'll see discussion of that in the party and attempts to retain elements of Trumpism without some of the other elements of Trumpism, like the constant barrage of untruth and hateful attacks on people and general unpresidential behavior.
Tanzina: Some of those votes were actually driven through misinformation about socialism to Cuban voters in South Florida, for example. There were lots of concerns about their outreach efforts to more conservative Latino voters as well but, Brendan, how will this GOP work with a Biden-Harris administration? We've got about a minute left in the segment.
Brendan: I think there's a few things that we might call "low-hanging fruit" where they could get some things done, whether it's on COVID or transportation. Obviously, Joe Biden has demonstrated over his career that he's a deal-maker, that he can bring people together and get things done. The problem is there isn't a whole lot of overlap in priorities and that's where the rub is. Where Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell have worked together, it has typically been to avert disaster when there was a government funding issue or a tax hike deadline and they had to come together by nature of a crisis.
That's different than coming together proactively and trying to do something that they just want to do. I just don't know that there's a lot of space where they're going to work together so I don't expect a lot of big initiatives to take place in the next four years.
Tanzina: We'll be watching, of course. Brendan Buck is a Republican strategist at Seven Letter and Nicholas Lemann is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Thanks to you both.
Brendan: Thank you.
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