Larry Elder and the problem of the Republican Party

College Republicans bring unconventional speaker to campus, and with him, broader questions about the future of the GOP

Palmer Van Tuyl

This year, Washington and Lee College Republicans welcomed syndicated radio host and conservative fixture Larry Elder as their seminal guest speaker on Thursday, March 31. Elder, who has gained prominence as a vocal Black conservative, came to campus off the heels of a whirlwind 2021, which saw his meteoric rise and fall as the insurgent candidate in California’s failed gubernatorial recall of Gavin Newsom. 

Elder’s story follows an unconventional rise for a man who consistently betrayed convention, and his stature within the Republican Party and broader conservative movement leads to numerous questions about the direction of the two groups as the right attempts to navigate the daunting waters of the potentially post-Trump era.

The child of Southern expats who moved to California during the Second Great Migration, Larry Elder grew up in Los Angeles and gained entry into Brown University. After graduating from law school and starting his own firm, Elder pivoted to media, holding a hodgepodge of punditry positions in radio, newspaper, and television. His big break came on KABC Los Angeles, where he first started hosting his eponymous radio program, “The Larry Elder Show,” which has since undergone syndication through numerous media outlets, attracting a wide audience across the country. 

Elder’s foray into public commentary has been consistently contrarian, arguing against narratives of racial disparities in modern America and “systemic racism.” In addition to his views on racial issues, Elder has been a staunch purveyor of libertarian positions in governance, bemoaning everything from minimum wage laws to COVID-19 related public health restrictions. He has also gained notoriety as a fervent supporter of former President Donald Trump, and like the New York real-estate mogul turned chief executive, has a history of controversial comments, which hampered his run for California Governor.

Popular support for the recall of Governor Gavin Newsom reached an all-time high a month before the September 2021 vote, with polls showing a split electorate and Elder at the forefront of the recall candidates. However, this was not to last as Elder became the face of the recall movement, and with it his baggage of controversial statements and proximity to Trump came into public light. According to multiple analysts, Elder’s reluctance to moderate in a deeply blue state proved a significant hindrance to the GOP’s aspirations of recapturing Sacramento. While occasionally diverging from the Trumpian platform on issues such as Afghanistan and tariffs, Elder remains in step with much of the former president’s agenda, such as absolving Trump of culpability in the Jan. 6 insurgency, as well as questioning the legitimacy of President Biden’s victory.

With the path of the Republican Party uncharted as the 2024 presidential election lurks beyond the horizon, figures such as Elder will be critical to determining the direction of the party as it grapples with the role of Trump in Republican politics going forward. When asked about the path forward for the red team, whether a Trump-skeptic model (such as the one favored by Glenn Youngkin in his successful 2021 gubernatorial campaign) or unabashedly pro-Trump model should be followed in 2024, Elder evaded a straight answer, stating “I am not sure that [those models] are inconsistent,” before lamenting his “problems with both parties.” However, this ostensible elevation above partisanship was contradicted by his statement earlier in the night, when he stated that “if Donald Trump needs a running mate in 2024, he has my phone number.”

While it remains to be seen whether or not #45 will assume the banner once more, actions taken by Elder and others within the MAGA movement to continually embrace Trump and his cult of personality will serve as barometers in judging the mood for change or constancy within the Republican Party. 

This will be particularly salient as possible challengers emerge, such as Florida Governor Ron Desantis, setting the stage for intra-party strife ahead of a golden opportunity to replace a seemingly imperiled incumbent. Thus, it is within the context of these events that one would be wise to pay heed to the words and rhetoric of this radio host from South Central LA.