Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
During an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow, former FBI Director James Comey blamed Trumpism for conservative distrust toward the FBI. Comey explained that he wasn’t very concerned about the agency in the long term, though, predicting that at some point the “fever” would certainly break.
His comments reflect a common misconception, namely that former President Donald Trump’s ongoing support within the GOP is some sort of aberration that revolves around the person rather than the party. Instead of talking about the electoral coalition that propelled Trump into power, and which currently makes him the leading Republican nominee for reelection, the conversation continues to revolve around the former president himself. This perspective has informed much of the coverage of the Republican primaries — with ongoing discussions about whether one of the nominees will be able to bring Trumpism to an end by knocking out the top nominee.
To understand Trumpism, it is important to look at who comprises the GOP base. As Ronald Brownstein has so well documented for CNN, Trump’s popularity is rooted in the rural White base of the Republican Party. And in a recent piece for The Atlantic, Brownstein examined how the Republican majority in the House in 2023 generally represents districts with older, non-college educated, lower-income, White voters.
The reason Trumpism has been so influential is that many of the ideas it espouses mesh well with the sentiment in this electorate. The kind of conservative anti-establishment populism that Trump has promoted, which is nationalistic, nativistic, distrustful, disruptive and deeply hostile to the social and cultural changes that have taken place since the 1960s, has strong appeal with many Republican voters.
It is true that political parties can change dramatically. Historians, for instance, have traced the long-term shift within the Democratic Party that started in the 1940s, as southern Democrats who opposed civil rights and unionization gradually drifted from their party and flocked to the open arms of a Republican Party that was increasingly conservative and willing to appeal to opposition toward civil rights legislation.
For its part, the Republican Party gradually moved away from the liberal northeasterners, such as Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits, who had been major forces in pulling the GOP toward the center, and veered sharply to the right, culminating in Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Reagan brought the kind of conservatism that in 1964 (when Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona in a landslide election) was considered far too radical for the White House.
But these kinds of changes take decades to happen. They are not the result of one candidate winning or losing, nor are they some sort of short-term spell that parties go through and come out of. Changing a party requires building new kinds of electoral support with groups of people who have felt alienated or who were once part of the opposition. The change requires generations of new leadership — not one person, even a president — who gradually alter the composition of the congressional caucuses and presidential nominee slates. It demands huge investments in think tanks, magazines and journals, social media, as well as news outlets, so as to move the party discourse into new directions.
As Trump himself understood, he fit well within the modern party. Although Trump was willing to go places that most of his colleagues were not — such as attempting to undermine the outcome of a presidential election — there were deep roots to what he was preaching long before he came to office. The Tea Party, comprised of far-right politicians who gained a significant number of congressional seats in the 2010 midterms, for example, was pushing conspiracy theories, voting restrictions and debt ceiling threats long before Trump brought his partisan style to the highest levels of power.
Ending Trumpism will require a massive effort by the party to reconfigure its coalition and to find leaders who will promote a different kind of conservatism than what Trump has to offer. Like former Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, GOPers will have to be willing to hold their own leaders accountable for the kind of behavior Trump engaged in regardless of the cost to their own future. Doing so will also necessitate painful and politically risky breaks with party officials and voters who keep moving the party deeper into its current state of affairs. It will require powerful donors to throw their resources behind candidates at all levels of government, just as the Koch brothers did during the 1990s and 2000s.
Whether the party actually wants to do so is an open question. When opposing election denialism or threatening to send the country into default constitutes an act of courage, then it is clear that the party is deep in the Trumpian red. Right now, most seem pretty content with the status quo.