The party of Lincoln? GOP’s future after the 2020 election

As part of the Andrea Mitchell Center’s Race and Politics series, political scientist Rogers Smith spoke with former GOP communications director Tara Setmayer about the election’s impact on the identity of the Republican Party.

A faded wooden sign reading "save America vote Republican" stands amid scrubby plants on a Texas roadside.
The party of Lincoln? An event at the Andrea Mitchell Center looked at the future of the Republican Party in the wake of the 2020 elections.

The Republican Party needs to address the issues of nationalism and ethnic grievances or it runs the risk of “going the way of the Whigs,” said former GOP communications director Tara Setmayer in a virtual event, The Party of Lincoln, hosted by the Andrea Mitchell Center on Nov. 18.

Setmayer, currently a political commentator on CNN, said she remains encouraged that heightened voter engagement in the 2020 election could bring meaningful changes to the GOP in coming years. She spoke with Penn’s Rogers Smith, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, about the 2020 election’s impact on the identity of the Republican Party, as part of the Center’s Race and Politics series in partnership with the Black Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.

“I’m looking forward to people continuing to be engaged as we build upon this great city on a hill and make it a more perfect union because we’re not there yet,” said Setmayer. “This is going to be an interesting next couple of years because, when the righteous anger of the American people takes over, ultimately light overtakes darkness, and I think that’s what we saw this last election.”

Semayer discussed why after 25 years as a GOP member she recently left the party following this presidential election and whether the party can fashion new narratives of national belonging or if instead American politics has become too entrenched to alter. Afterward, both Setmayer and Smith answered audience questions moderated by Katherine Rader, political science Ph.D. candidate and Andrea Mitchell Center fellow.

Setmayer, also a senior advisor with The Lincoln Project, told the audience she was attracted to the Republican Party because she loved the idea of it being the party of Abraham Lincoln, one where all people were protected regardless of race. She said she saw it as a party that provided ladders of opportunity to Americans, one that embraced smaller government and not seeing oneself as a victim.

Setmayer, who is biracial, said she had issues with some rhetoric that emerged with the Tea Party in 2010.

“Some of it was kind of ethnocentric, and I said, ‘Eh, those are just the fringes.’ But then there was the nomination and election of Donald Trump,” she said. “And here we are now, where the malignancy of this nationalist, populist, ethnic-grievance centered way of approaching things has completely overtaken the party, and the more traditional tenets of republicanism have been thrown by the wayside.”

A woman and a man are on a Zoom call.
Former GOP communications director Tara Setmayer (left) and Political scientist Rogers Smith during the virtual discussion about the future of the Republican Party on Nov. 18, 2020.

She said many of her friends in the party left after Trump’s “both sides” comments in the wake of the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. But she stuck it out, saying she wanted to help rebuild the party once the Trump era was over.

But after seeing more than 70 million Americans cast their vote this year hoping for four more years of Trump, she had to leave.

“When Trump started to question the integrity of the election, refusing to concede, and I watched Republicans back him up on it, enable this anti-democracy approach, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ I can no longer associate myself with a party that has completely abandoned all of its principles, every last one of them, even down to something as fundamental as protecting the integrity of our free and fair elections,” she said. “There is no more room for people like me in the current form of the Republican Party. The malignancy of Trumpism has officially taken over.”

She said she sees the party as a “death cult” that has weaponized mask wearing and doesn’t care “that we have a lying sociopath in the White House.”

“The Supreme Court, tax cuts, none of these things matter if our democracy fails,” she said.

A power struggle is happening within the GOP, where the party is “cannibalizing itself between these Trump-apologist Republicans and more traditional Republicans. Because there wasn’t a repudiation, the Trumpists feel emboldened,” she said.

Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell don’t subscribe to Trumpism but are enabling him for policy reasons and until the Georgia runoffs are decided, she said.

Assuming the GOP retains control of the Senate, Setmayer said she thinks things will nonetheless get accomplished under Biden’s watch, including a COVID-19 relief package because there is real incentive for both parties to work together on that.

Biden has been working to set the tone that he’s going to seek to be a unifier, and Setmayer said she thinks there’s a segment of the GOP that would welcome it because “people are exhausted.”

In answering an audience question, Smith said he thinks the religious and ethnic resentment that fueled Trump’s rise will continue to persist, but he contends something that could address the economic hardship angle would be focusing on large infrastructure projects and the jobs they provide. It was something Trump touted during his first run but never enacted.

“I think that’s something Biden could look to do, after we get by this initial crisis,” Smith said.

Setmayer said Trump’s lack of follow-through on his infrastructure promises showed her that he “was completely uninterested in actually governing because that would have been a win-win for everyone.”

Both Smith and Setmayer said they think Trump will dominate the party for the next four years, and neither believes the creation of a third party is realistic.

The Democratic and Republican parties have created a structure of election laws that amount to enormous obstacles for third parties, Smith noted.

“Since the 1890s, change happens due to internal party dynamics, not third parties,” he said.

Both agreed that the GOP will change if they learn that Trumpism is a loser for them, and so far, it hasn’t been.

“I hope that the more sensible heads in the Republican Party wake up and say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Setmayer said. “This is an unsustainable path.”