IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Can Donald Trump's Movement Survive Without Donald Trump?

With the election finally here, voters and leaders must contemplate what the lasting effect of Donald Trump's movement will be if he falls short.
Image: Donald Trump in New Hampshire
Donald Trump at a rally Monday in Manchester, New Hampshire.Scott Eisen / Getty Images

MANCHESTER, New Hamphsire — Donald Trump led an unprecedented grassroots revolt against the Republican Party that now threatens to take over the White House, but lately he's had a warning for his voters: It's a one-time offer.

"Do not let this opportunity slip away, folks, it's never going to happen again," he said at a rally Monday in Manchester. "Four years from now? Never going to happen again."

Just because the nominee cannot envision a Trumpist movement without Trump, however, doesn't mean one won't emerge. With the election finally here, voters and leaders on all sides are forced to contemplate what the lasting effect of his movement will be if he falls short on Tuesday.

"Whether he wins tomorrow, he won me, he won all of us," Ingrid Smyer, 60, said as she waited for Trump to arrive here at Southern New Hampshire University Arena. "That energy is a fire, and it's not going away, and I don't think it's contained just within the Republican Party."

Steve Grady, a 56-year-old teacher supporting Trump, said outside the hall: "I don't think anything will be the same after Tuesday. This country is deeply divided."

Trump has unleashed a political force that's more powerful than one man. What it is, however, is difficult to define — tangled up with his personal biography, wealth and style. That makes it hard to predict what role his followers will play if he loses and how they might remake the party.

If there's anywhere to look for clues, it's in New Hampshire, the state Trump led from end to end in the GOP primaries and the site of his first victory.

In many ways, it's a place that embodies his movement. Granite Staters have a famous independent streak that has sometimes empowered moderates and has sometimes empowered populists depending on who can channel it.

And, just like the national party writ large, its Republican leaders have slogged through a difficult civil war over Trump that's continued right up to Election Day, as Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who disavowed Trump last month, fights to retain her seat.

John H. Sununu, the former governor and an opening speaker for Trump at Monday's rally, still sounded bewildered by his nominee's support even as he worked to elect him president.

"I find it hard to even analyze retrospectively what's gone on this past year," Sununu said in an interview. "It was different than anything I've ever seen."

To him, the lesson for the party from Trump going forward was about style more than substance.

"I think the party is going to continue to be the traditional Republican Party but perhaps with a little more bite to it now that they see the bite doesn't turn people off," the famously blunt Republican said.

Jennifer Horn, the state GOP chairwoman, who clashed with Trump in the primaries, described Trump's surge as a "gut reaction" to a broader fear of economic instability and national security threats. But that doesn't mean the party needs to emulate him to keep those people in the party.

"I think Donald Trump's a unique individual, and nobody can or should try to be him," she said.

Supporters sometimes struggled Monday to articulate which elements of Trump they would want to carry into the party if he's no longer a candidate.

Some mentioned issues like trade, immigration and crime. There was his refusal to hew to "political correctness," itself a nebulous term that can apply to anything from campus safe spaces to public norms against bigotry.

The most consistent thread was a broad populism and an anti-corruption message that mostly avoided specific policies.

"He can't be bought, he won't be sold, and he's not the status quo," Joyce Silva, 56, said outside the rally.

"He represents how people feel," said Lenny Dupere, 71 — who wore a "Life's a bitch, don't vote for one" button featuring Hillary Clinton's face. "The politicians don't listen to us. They're all part of their club."

Ryan Kozyra, a high school senior from Nashua, was already looking past Trump. While he donned a Trump/Pence shirt for the rally, he said that he was an "anybody but Hillary" voter and that he and his conservative classmates mostly disliked Trump.

"Our generation is kind of soft, and he says a lot of mean things," he said. "We don't take it as well as some adults."

Drew Cline, a New Hampshire commentator who backed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and is now voting for Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, didn't find Trump so mysterious. In Cline's eyes, Trump is only the latest manifestation of a longstanding force in state politics that found a home with whichever leader could claim the most anti-elitist message. While issues like immigration and trade help activate it, purity on issues was largely beside the point.

"It's predominantly outsider versus insider. It's cultural. It's 'You don't get me and my people.' It's tribal," Cline said. "That aspect of it is really difficult to address."

To Cline, the movement last peaked in New Hampshire five years ago, when the state party elected Jack Kimball as its chairman. Kimball, an inexperienced activist who became famous for posting anti-Obama signs outside his office, won in an upset over an establishment-backed choice. His short tenure ended up dividing the party until he resigned after a series of internal disputes.

Over at Trump's Manchester headquarters, another outsider was already looking for ways to capitalize on Trump's energy to feed a different long-term cause.

Kevin Deame, a scraggly bearded man in a blue sweatshirt, left the GOP office with a clipboard and a list of addresses and brochures to canvass for Trump. But he wasn't using them to evangelize for Trump.

"Jesus, no, are you kidding?" he said when asked whether he supported Trump.

Instead, he was going door to door to persuade the people on the GOP list to vote for his write-in presidential candidacy with the Pirate Party, an international movement centered on Internet privacy.

"From my point of view, Trump voters are a lot of times a protest vote in general," he said.

Republicans aren't the only ones thinking about how to address Trump's movement after the election, either. Hillary Clinton held her own event Sunday in Manchester, only blocks from Trump's rally Monday, and she put a heavy emphasis on perhaps sealing off the gushing well of rage that Trump exposed during the race.

"We will have some work to do to bring about healing and reconciliation after this election," she said.

While Trump railed against refugees in three speeches that day, Khizr Khan recounted a story about a teacher who stopped stopped kids from bullying a Muslim student by playing his convention speech about his son's sacrifice in Iraq.

Image: Ted Nugent at Donald Trump rally in Michigan
Ted Nugent warms up the crowd at a rally Monday for Donald Trump in Grand Rapids, Michigan.Scott Olson / Getty Images

While Ted Nugent grabbed his crotch and shouted "I got your blue state right here, baby!" at Trump's Michigan event that night, James Taylor opened Clinton's with a soothing rendition of "America the Beautiful."

Clinton voters who attended sometimes said they could acknowledge Trump voters' outrage even as they expressed astonishment that they chose Trump and his anti-immigration message as their champion.

"It made me realize a lot of Americans are struggling and not getting their needs met, if they're turning to turn to a candidate I feel is horrible," said Bess Beller-Levesque, 25. "There must be something deeper behind it."