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Ohio’s Senate primary and the future of the GOP

Which variety of “Trumpism” will gain the most influence?

U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance greets former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in late April. Associated Press/Photo by Joe Maiorana

Ohio’s Senate primary and the future of the GOP
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As primary season heats up in what is likely to be another explosive election year, political strategists are putting their fingers to the wind to determine just how much of a stranglehold former President Donald Trump maintains over the Republican Party. Although signals have certainly been mixed so far—unsurprising in such a large and diverse country—last week’s GOP primary in Ohio offers particularly helpful clues. J.D. Vance, the celebrated author of Hillbilly Elegy, walked away with the Republican nomination to run for retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s seat in November, thanks to Trump’s endorsement. Vance won 32 percent of the vote in a crowded field. Does this tell us something about the continued strength of “Trumpism,” or is the news the fact that 68 percent of Ohio voters remain unswayed by the former president?

In making sense of Ohio’s primary—a raucous contest that featured a record $66 million in combined spending by the Republican candidates—it might be helpful to distinguish between the three varieties of Trumpism.

The first, which we might call “intellectual Trumpism,” represents a new policy vision and philosophy of conservatism, seeking to refocus voters and legislators on the urgent need to “reshore” American jobs. This vision competes vigorously with China, worries more about Big Tech than Big Government, and frames policy around the needs of the working class rather than the business class. Although Trump signaled some of these priority shifts in 2016, developing them into a coherent agenda fell largely to more policy and philosopher types, many of whom tried to keep Trump and his brash style at arm’s length. Although Vance was one of the early adherents of this new school of “national conservatism,” his primary win suggests that, on its own, it lacks much of a constituency. Vance, after all, was polling at around 10 percent before receiving Trump’s endorsement—and likely would have been even lower had he not early on adopted the pugilistic populism designed to appeal to GOP voters’ basest instincts.

In making sense of Ohio’s primary—a raucous contest that featured a record $66 million in combined spending by the Republican candidates—it might be helpful to distinguish between the three varieties of Trumpism.

This take-no-prisoners style, which we might call “rhetorical Trumpism,” represents undoubtedly the most enduring legacy of the former president, and all evidence suggests it is riding high in Ohio and elsewhere. Throughout Ohio’s nomination contest, Vance struggled to gain traction in what quickly became a moral and rhetorical race to the bottom, as all candidates except one—Matt Dolan, who finished third—tripped over one another to prove who hated liberals the most and trusted the integrity of our electoral system the least. Vance’s final campaign appearance alongside two controversial radicals, U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida, highlights the extent of his own pragmatic capitulation to an ethos he once deplored. Ohio’s primary results enable us to put a number on the breadth of support for “rhetorical Trumpism”—at least in one bellwether state: 77 percent, the total for all candidates except Dolan.

The third type of Trumpism is focused squarely on the man himself and his magnetism as a leader willing to stand up and fight, a leader who demands—and commands, among some—absolute loyalty. Such “personality cult Trumpism,” for all the media’s alarmed fascination with it, remains weaker than many might suppose. Most Ohio primary voters were aware that Vance had Trump’s endorsement as they entered the voting booth last Tuesday, but only 32 percent decided to pull the lever for him. Moreover, the decidedly non-Trumpist candidate Dolan surged in the final two weeks of polling, from 6 percent to 22 percent, suggesting that the former president does not command as much power as some think he does.

What are we to make of all this? The answer will depend on each individual’s assessment of what extent these three forms of Trumpism represent forces for good in U.S. politics. Some may disagree with the new policy vision of intellectual Trumpism, but at least it represents a serious attempt to grapple with the problems facing America today. And while many deplore the personality cult that has developed around Trump, in part it represents a healthy impulse to recover the forgotten political virtue of loyalty. Rhetorical Trumpism, on the other hand, seems a largely negative force, although some would say a necessary one in the face of an increasingly existential threat from the left. However one weighs these considerations, though, it is important during this election season to evaluate each of these phenomena distinctly, rather than following the media’s determination to dissolve everything on the right into an undifferentiated “Trumpism.”

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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