Editorial: Republicans must heed the message from California and consign Trump to the past

© Chicago Tribune

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC held at the Hilton Anatole on July 11, 2021, in Dallas, Texas. - Brandon Bell/Getty Images North America/TNS

The name Donald J. Trump is toxic for Republicans. It doesn’t matter if they’re Illinois Republicans, Indiana Republicans or members of the Grand Old Party on Mars.

That’s the clear message for the GOP from the California recall debacle.

Despite very real misgivings about California Gov. Gavin Newsom among moderates and swing voters, all the Democrats had to do was whisper the word “Trump” and those worries evaporated at mere mention of the boogeyman.

In order to win, Republicans needed to make the recall vote about issues endemic to California; this was, after all, a gubernatorial contest and Newsom had clear vulnerabilities.

But Democrats successfully made the race about national issues, which is another way of saying they made it about Trump. In essence, they told voters that if they recalled Newsom they were hastening the return of Trump. Trump, Trump, Trump-ity Trump.

The veracity of that claim is not relevant; it clearly worked. And Democrats are licking their lips over the possibility of applying it to all manner of races up and down the country, including Illinois, where a group called the Illinois Opportunity Project reportedly wants to promote a recall referendum to give Illinois voters a chance to recall elected officials, presumably a way to target Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The complex relationship of recalls to the quotidian democratic process is a separate issue for another day. But in the unlikely event any of that works, the Illinois Democrats will have a one-word defense.

This will be the case in every contested political race from senators to governors to city clerks.

So as Republican strategists Monday-morning quarterback the defeat out west, the smartest among them surely see that the future of the party really boils down to one simple question: How to eliminate Trump without alienating his many supporters, whose enthusiasm, dedication and votes the party clearly needs.

It is a dilemma, and a delicate dance, for the GOP but it’s an unavoidable issue that is not going away. Any kind of wholesale Republican return to power will entirely depend on if and when the party can find a solution to the renegade elephant in the room.

Many in the party clearly hoped that the man himself would provide that solution. Maybe by going away. Maybe by anointing a successor. Maybe by preaching party fealty. Maybe by disavowing political extremism or anti-democratic violence on all sides. Or by reaching out to moderate voters by reminding them, say, of his success in lowering taxes or his early accomplishments with the COVID-19 vaccines.

But that is not what has transpired. Look, for example, at Trump’s conduct in recent days as America marked the somber 9/11 anniversary.

The events of 9/11 brought America together and created a sense of national unity that most moderates view as the halcyon days of unity and the right kind of patriotism. Who can forget what it meant to see the determined Sammy Sosa running around Wrigley Field in Chicago, holding his heart and flying the Stars and Stripes? The voters Republicans are going to need remember such moments well. They’re tired of scorched-earth division and they want that sense of American togetherness to return.

In the remembrances last week, we saw former presidents of the United States standing together in somber, unified reflection on the site of the World Trade Center. Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York at the time of the attacks, was there too. In Shanksville, Pennsylvania, George W. Bush took the occasion to deliver a moving, powerful speech decrying the enemies of freedom and democracy and standing up for decency and tolerance. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,“ he said, noting that “they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

Exactly. This is precisely where a hefty chunk of moderate America resides. But where was Trump?

He managed a quick visit to Shanksville on Sept. 10, a Sept. 11 trip to visit with New York police and firefighters and a video message, but his out-of-whack utterances were inappropriately partisan, the latest salvo in what appears to be a seething, heaving mess of resentment that would challenge the most competent therapist. On the evening of Sept. 11, he was scheduled to deliver pay-per-view commentary for a boxing match at a casino in Hollywood, Florida.

Enough evidence right there to emphasize that he’s bad news going forward for Republicans. The only question now is how to excise him without upsetting his adherents. By staying home at their master’s tacit command, after all, those Trump supporters probably cost Republicans the Senate at the last election. Smart Republicans are well aware of this too.

So, what to do: Empathy will help. Appeals to patriotism and decency should not be discounted. Old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning will be a good idea, and those in charge of the Republican marketing brand had better put the words “the future” at the center of all their work. Trump, whether he likes it or not, has to be consigned to the party of the past.

When it comes to his loyal supporters, the tactics will need to be gentle, but unrelenting at the same time. Republicans need to tell these Americans that they understand the factors that made them love Trump and yet make a case for a better Republican leader, a more patriotic American, to whom to pledge allegiance. And some Trump whisperers need to be found to try and get the man himself on board with a succession plan.

Good uck with that, of course. But either way, the simple fact abides. The Republican Party needs to prove to moderate voters that it has moved past Trump. Period.

Nothing else comes close to determining the party’s electoral fortunes in the weeks and months to come.