America: Episode MMXXII — The Donald Strikes Back

William O'Reilly ’25 in Opinions | October 7, 2022

This November’s midterm elections are some of the most heated that we have seen in years. With all seats in the House of Representatives, 35 seats in the Senate, and 36 governorships up for grabs, these 2022 elections will shape the final two years of Joe Biden’s term in office. Of course, the most pressing political issues are at stake: gun control, abortion rights, and voter suppression. 
Yet even as the midterms hold our very future in their hands, the Republican Party seems to be influenced largely by a force from the past: Donald Trump. While he no longer holds the presidency, his influence over the Republican Party is undeniable. This year in the primaries, Trump announced his support for 200 Republican candidates for governor, senator, or representative—an insane increase from his 90 endorsements during the 2018 midterms. Of those 200 endorsed candidates, 92 percent won their primaries. While his predecessors have largely shied away from directly involving themselves in the political scene, Trump has done no such thing. But his near-indestructible sway over the party is a severe problem for both the party’s and Americans’ hopes to move on from Republican losses during the 2020 election.
Barring the handful of political veterans whose beliefs align with Trump’s, Trump’s candidates of choice fall into two main categories—neither of which are ideal for the party. The first category is people just like Trump in his 2016 campaign. 53 percent of his endorsed candidates are people who have never held political office before. One such candidate is Mehmet Oz (also known as “Dr. Oz”) who is running for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat. While he has a successful career in television, Oz’s only political job has been a seat on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. Another example is Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee in the Georgia Senate race. Walker was arguably the greatest college football player of all time in his career at the University of Georgia, as well as a long time friend of Trump, but—predictably—has held no prior political office. 
The problem with this particular batch of candidates is that they discredit not only the Republican Party, but all of our nation’s politicians. These candidates diminish the Republican Party into nothing but an inexperienced group of celebrities who are pals with Trump. Other than chipping away at the image of his party, Trump’s system of nepotism only reaffirms and propagates the message that high positions in politics are not gained by merit, but rather by connections; it deters young, talented politicians from introducing some well-needed novelty and change to Washington. Of course, the other category of Trump’s candidates are those whom he simply intimidated into aligning with him. While not up for re-election this cycle, a notable example is longtime Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who abandoned his criticisms of Trump in 2016 to instead cozy up to the former president and maintain his own leadership status. Another is Lindsey Graham, who accepted the 2020 election results, but after facing immense backlash, flip-flopped to announce his support of Trump’s potential 2024 campaign. 
But this half of his endorsements come across as less of an announcement of support and more of a not-so-thinly-veiled threat. These candidates know all too well the fate of Republicans who disagree publicly with Trump: complete banishment from the party. We’ve seen this with the former House Republican Conference chair—the third-highest Republican position in the House—Liz Cheney, who lost her primary nomination to yet another Trump endorsed-opponent. By this point, Republican candidates must feel the pressure of a political ultimatum: either defend Trump and secure the votes, or speak out against him and face his wrath. 
Unfortunately, Trump’s bullying of candidates into supporting him only precipitates the ruin of the Republican Party. Aside from giving Trump far too much power over party selections, his intimidation tactics create a party of one ideology—Trump’s ideology. The homogeneity within the Republican Party is far too dangerous. As Trumpism dominates, there remains no room for the healthy debate and growth in party beliefs and practices  necessary to the party’s ability to keep up with new generations and modern political landscapes diminishes. Conversely, the Democratic Party currently has its fair share of internal debate, especially between centrists such as the moderate Krysten Sinema and the progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While these conflicts may make a party seem weak and divided, a healthy amount of such debate actually allows a party to rethink its values, reevaluate their standing in the nation, and continually grow stronger together. And they stand to grow only stronger as Republicans struggle to hold onto these opportunities to grow and adapt. 
The solution to this Trump crisis starts at the top of the Republican Party. It is hard to keep an ex-president's influence out of a party when a good chunk of said party believes that he never lost his seat in the first place. GOP leaders must concede publicly and firmly that Trump lost in 2020, and thus discredit those claims to his voter base. While influential members of the Republican old guard, like Dick Cheney and George Bush, have accepted the election results, other Republicans with louder voices and greater influence—the ones in office right now—have failed to do so. These concessions may seem impossible due to Trump’s current chokehold on the party, but they really are the only way to move on from the Republican losses in 2020 and out of that chokehold. In short, they are the only way to save the Republican Party. 
This year’s midterms will be a true and grim test of the effects of Trump’s influence. While it’s clear that he holds the power to push his candidates past the primaries, it’s not so clear that they can easily win their seats. If Trump-endorsed candidates fail to enter Congress, the Republican Party would be forced to rethink its Trump-centric political strategies. 
But no matter what, it is not for the GOP to get themselves together and reform before the next election cycle. A wakeup call in the midterms may be exactly what the party needs to put together a fresh batch of candidates for 2024 and finally start looking towards the future.