What is the future of the Republican Party if Donald Trump loses?

Four years ago, to save themselves, they jumped into Mr Trump's lifeboat. But what will they do if it falls apart?

A woman takes part in a rally to support U.S. President Donald Trump and the Back the Blue in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., July 26, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
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Donald Trump appears to be sinking fast in the run-up to the November election, now less than 100 days away, and many fear he's dragging the whole Republican Party down with him. Yet Republican officials, with rare exceptions, are sticking with the President, and aren't uttering a word of criticism or trying to distance from him. Why?

Most elected Republicans were never big fans of Mr Trump. Four years ago, the US President engineered a hostile takeover of their party with passionate support from base voters but against opposition from party leaders.

Eventually, the establishment capitulated. But now, given the mishandled coronavirus pandemic and concomitant economic effects, Republican leaders face a conundrum.

Do they effectively shake off Mr Trump’s leadership or distance themselves from him in the hope of being re-elected? Can they try to salvage their own reputations, and that of their party, in what seems set to go down as a historically remarkably failed presidency?

Or do they continue to hope that Mr Trump will find a way to turn his and their own fortunes around by fighting a close (or even winning) race against Joe Biden and, perhaps more importantly, retaining Republican control of the Senate?

Should they continue, therefore, to insist they respect Mr Trump because, if he turns on them, so will many of their own voters?

Nationally, it appears that the majority of the country is moving away from the President and the party he leads, largely because of his policies and personality. He speaks and acts as if there were a large "silent majority" that furtively agrees with the reactionary racial, cultural and religious positions he advocates. But most evidence suggests that, while he certainly does speak for a passionate following, a large and growing national majority rejects these views.

FILE - In this June 15, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump speaks alongside Attorney General William Barr during a law enforcement briefing on the MS-13 gang in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Barr is scheduled to appear for the first time before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, July 28.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

In deeply conservative states, elected Republicans may not have much to fear. Simply supporting the party and its leader is obviously their best bet to get re-elected.

However, numerous once-solidly Republican states are becoming strikingly competitive. Texas, Georgia, North and South Carolina and several others might now see the election of Democrats.

This is partly because of broader demographic changes, but is also partly caused by Mr Trump's style and policy failures.

A further complication is that because Mr Trump doesn't care about most policies

In such circumstances, any sensible Republican candidate would reach out to the centre. But how to do that without crossing the president?

The costs can be fatal. Former attorney general Jeff Sessions was just defeated in a Republican Senate primary in Alabama because Mr Trump never forgave him for recusing himself from Russia-related investigations. He is only the most recent such victim.

Many Republican candidates need to secure their base while reaching beyond it, but are confronted with Mr Trump’s combative stridency. Anything that smacks of betrayal is fatal but so is being too close to his most controversial statements and policies.

A powerful right-wing media ecosystem provides the enforcement, especially vituperative evening opinion shows on Fox News. It is fiercely loyal to Mr Trump and eager to punish any deviant heretic who can be made an example of.

A further complication is that because Mr Trump doesn't care about most policies, he has adopted a familiar Republican agenda on many important issues.

Republicans have achieved some significant goals by submitting to Mr Trump, including securing tax cuts, environmental and other forms of deregulation, extremely conservative judges, increased military spending, limits on rights for transgender Americans and support for Christian fundamentalism.

It's a Faustian bargain but they do like what they got out of it.

Yet, insofar as they believe in anything, most of these Republicans remain traditional conservatives and have been set ideologically adrift in the party’s new Trumpian era.

Most came of age within a more libertarian movement, influenced by former president Ronald Reagan, that was based on smaller government and lower taxes. Now they suddenly find themselves operating in a populist, and often white nationalist, environment in which they are not fully comfortable.

But few have the stomach or intellect for a major ideological conflict. And they lack any credible alternative that is not rooted in the now-distant late 1970s.

Four years ago, to save themselves, they jumped in to Mr Trump's lifeboat. But what will they do if it falls apart soon?

There are at least three plausible scenarios, depending on the election results.

If it is close, and especially if Republicans keep a Senate majority, Trumpians like Senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, or Fox News host Tucker Carlson, may battle for control of this new populist party with white nationalist undertones.

If Republicans suffer a devastating defeat, traditional conservatives like Senator Mitt Romney or Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (both sons of centrist former Republican leaders) could potentially mount a comeback.

US Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, heads into a Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 21, 2020. / AFP / Olivier DOULIERY

If the party loses badly, but not absolutely devastatingly – and possibly even then – perhaps the best placed is Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and Mr Trump's first UN ambassador. Ms Haley has carefully positioned herself equidistantly between the traditional Reaganite wing of the party and the new Trumpian one.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 12: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley visits "Fox & Friends" at Fox News Channel Studios on November 12, 2019 in New York City.   John Lamparski/Getty Images/AFP

She joined Mr Trump's administration at its outset, and was careful to maintain a distance while never fully falling out with him. Since she left the administration, she has calibrated strong support for him with trying not to seem too much like an unwavering acolyte.

Many scenarios are possible, but Ms Haley could seek to present herself as a Republican unifier who can bring the old Reaganite party together with the new Trumpian one in a new form of conservative "fusionism". Her status as a woman of colour, but from the Deep South, and a committed Christian fundamentalist won't hurt in a post-Trump era.

There is a fourth, distant but not unimaginable scenario. It may be that under Mr Trump the Republican Party is charging so aggressively and quickly in the opposite direction to most of the country that it could soon prove non-viable and uncompetitive at a national level and could go the way of the whig party that collapsed in the 1840s.

This is unlikely, but no longer inconceivable.

Republican leaders are left wondering if their party is just facing defeat, or conceivably extinction and replacement by a new centre-right grouping, and what they can possibly do about it.

For now, it seems, the answer is not much.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington