Essay: The Long-Term Price of Trumpism Will Devastate the GOP

Jeff Timmer, the former head of Michigan’s Republican Party, diagnoses the ailments he believes will doom his beloved party
Illustrations: Pedro Silva

As I waited to address the Michigan Board of State Canvassers via Zoom in late November, I couldn’t quite believe it had come to this. I was once the executive director of the state Republican Party. I’m also a former member of that very panel, and, evidently, one of the last sane people left among the conservative politicos I once considered friends and colleagues.

Yet I laid out the truth: Joe Biden won our state, all 83 counties certified their vote totals, and the task before this quartet was simply to avoid providing false hope to acolytes of the conspiracy theorist in chief otherwise known as President Donald Trump. “This election was not close,” I said. “Neither was Gary Peters’ defeat of John James. But whether the margin is one vote or 1 million votes is irrelevant to the legal obligations this board must fulfill today. Just do your mandatory duty.”

In the end, they did — but only because GOP board member Aaron Van Langevelde knew he had no choice. While the other Republican, Norm Shinkle, milked the moment for its Trump-pleasing limelight, Van Langevelde enjoyed adulation for his integrity from pro-America quarters and the threatened death of his political career from the pro-Trump camp.

What should have been an innocuous bureaucratic moment became a Twitter trending topic carried live on C-SPAN — and proved to me once again that both the national and state Republican parties are unrecognizable to anyone who came to them out of sincere philosophical reverence for Goldwater, Buckley, and Reagan. That current Michigan GOP Chairwoman Laura Cox tried to pressure Van Langevelde to betray his conscience and the law fills me with an indescribable sadness and rage.

How did the party I once led and loved get here? I admit my own culpability for not seeing where this was going sooner. I helped draw the gerrymandered district maps that ensured the GOP’s long-term lock on Lansing and turned most of our congressional districts into “safe seats” for one side or the other. That has made it beneficial for candidates to play to the extremes of their parties and nearly impossible for anyone in D.C. to moderate or compromise.

But it’s so much more than that. In 2012, after Barack Obama won his second term, the RNC commissioned a blunt “autopsy” of why Mitt Romney lost. The report warned Republicans to appeal to non-white voters, whose numbers continued to grow and found the party’s harsh messages on immigration and civil rights particularly repellant.

jeff timmer
Jeff Timmer

As sensible as that sounds, the report overlooked the ascendant Tea Party faction and its nativist credo borne of economic distress and fears about the nation’s changing racial demographics. Trump weaponized that credo, rode it to the White House, and — as evidenced by that idiotic Board of Canvassers episode — reduced the GOP to nothing more than a Trump-supplicant cabal. Populism, nationalism, racism, and classism are today’s definitive GOP traits. The party no longer stands for anything so much as against everything.

For the moment, the likes of Cox, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, and Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey must regard this formula as a success. The 2020 election was a personal repudiation of Trump, but Republicans picked up seats in the U.S. House, limited their expected losses in the U.S. Senate, and easily held on to power in Lansing. If there is a price to pay for falling in line for Trump, it has yet to come due.

Oh, but it will. Arizona and Georgia are now swing states — and Texas seems sure to follow — which affirms exactly the future the 2012 autopsy warned of. Republicans remain older, whiter, more rural, and less educated. With an electrifying candidate like Trump stoking their worst instincts, that cohort voted in unusually large numbers in 2016 and 2020. That is why Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin behaved like swing states in those races.

It can’t stay like this for long. In 2011, I drew a Michigan district map that we thought would lock in a GOP advantage in the U.S. House delegation at 9-to-5. A decade later, disillusionment about Republican bigotry and thirst for raw power among suburban women, college-educated whites, people of color, and anyone under 40 has shifted that to 7-to-7. The boundaries didn’t change; the people and their politics did. How that will play out in the 2021 redistricting that will be done by an independent, bipartisan commission remains to be seen, but there is a reason Michigan Republicans fought like hell — and failed — to defeat the ballot initiative that altered that process.

As soon as the 2022 gubernatorial race, we will see whether Michigan Republicans can still rely on the surge in less-educated white voters without Trump on the ballot. Or perhaps those folks will view 2020 as such a bummer that it sours them on the electoral process. After all, Trump, abetted by Cox, McDaniel, Shinkle, James, and Shirkey, keeps telling the flock that voting machines are rigged and any government official — even a Republican! — who defies Trumpism is hopelessly corrupt. Why would these people bother to keep participating? And even if they do, they can’t keep up with the accelerating demographic shifts that have terrified them in the first place.

That, right there, is the trouble with exploiting this dark vision of a diverse America knowing that these assaults on democratic values and norms can have lasting impact. Republicans may reap short-term political gain, but at what cost? When they realize the damage they’ve done, it may be far too late for all of us.

Jeff Timmer is a political consultant and strategist. He is a senior adviser to The Lincoln Project and co-founder of Republicans and Independents for Biden.