In age of Donald Trump, what does it mean to be a Republican?

Donald Trump and Paul Ryan are clashing over much more than style. They're clashing over two different views of American conservatism. 

Andrew Harnik/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves as he arrives for a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan at the Republican National Committee Headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday.

This week’s much-anticipated summit between Donald Trump and Paul Ryan has laid bare the fundamental question of the 2016 presidential race: What does it mean to be a Republican?

House Speaker Ryan, the nation’s highest ranking GOP official, hews to the party’s longstanding platform of fiscal and social conservatism: low taxes, small government, free trade. Mr. Trump, the party’s presumptive nominee for president, is a populist – issuing big promises of jobs and health care for all, protectionism on trade, and dramatic measures to curtail illegal immigration.

The clash of ideology (as well as style) has thrown the party into contortions as its establishment wing tries to make peace with the “Trump wing” and produce a unified force that can beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in November. It’s clear, after Thursday's meeting, that the formation of the new Republican Party is a work in progress. Ryan still hasn’t endorsed Trump. But the two principals, at least, have begun a dialogue.

“I do believe that we are now planting the seeds to get ourselves unified, to bridge the gaps and differences,” Ryan said at a press conference after the meeting.

It now seems likely that Ryan will endorse Trump sooner or later. Members of his caucus, one by one, are falling in line. His counterpart in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, is already on board with Trump. If nothing else, opposition to Mrs. Clinton is the party’s glue.

To some Republicans, the range of disparate views within the party is even a positive – a sign that the party is indeed a big tent.

Commentator Pat Buchanan, a populist precursor to Trump who ran for president three times, sees a GOP with three wings: the “Trump folks,” who are populist and nationalist; tea-party and other hard-line conservatives, in the mold of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas; and the moderate-conservative establishment.

“I don’t see any inherent, great contradiction which should cause a slice of the Republican Party to leave and vote for Hillary Clinton,” says Mr. Buchanan in a Monitor interview. “Every coalition has stresses and strains, but I think that the Republicans have a potential majority coalition.”

Other observers note that political parties evolve over time, and on rare occasions go through a process of realignment. At one time, it was the Republicans who were the larger-government, pro-tariff party, only later becoming the party of small government and free trade.

“A number of people are writing about the death of the Republican Party in apocalyptic terms,” says Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, Gainesville. “But we’ve had two strong major political parties since 1860. I doubt that the Republican Party will crumble.”

Professor McDonald sees Trump as more the center of a “cult of personality” than one who can force big, systemic changes in the party coalition structure.

But the reality is that Trump has earned almost 11 million votes in the primaries, and has brought many new voters into the GOP – voters the party will need in November and beyond. And Trump knows he will need the other wings of the party in order to win the presidency.

Still, as Ryan suggests, the dance toward some form of unity has only begun. It’s clear that significant policy differences remain. And both men are using language artfully in an effort to create an appearance of comity while pulling each other into their respective camps.

On Thursday, Ryan spoke repeatedly of the Republican Party’s “core principles” in his remarks to the press, suggesting that Trump is part of a larger “we” that adheres to a common philosophy.

“We discussed the core principles that tie us all together – principles like the Constitution, the separation of powers, the fact that we have an executive that has gone way beyond the boundaries of the Constitution, and how it's important to us that we restore Article I of the Constitution,” Ryan said, referring to the constitutional provision on the powers and limits of Congress.

The speaker may have been reflecting concerns that a President Trump, after a career as a CEO who answers to no one, might play fast and loose with the boundaries of executive branch power. Ryan didn’t go into specific policy differences, but acknowledged they’re there – and noted that Republicans don’t have to agree on everything.

Trump, speaking later on Fox, said he “didn’t mind” going through a slow process of party unification, but then highlighted issues that he cares passionately about – including two that put him at odds with the GOP establishment: immigration and trade.

“I feel very strongly about border security, I feel very strongly about trade, I feel very strongly about building up the military,” Trump said on Fox’s “Hannity.” “And to a large extent, I think Paul is there also. So we’ll get there, I’m pretty sure.”

Trump’s rally cries for a “big, beautiful wall” on the southern US border, to be paid for by Mexico; a temporary ban on Muslims’ entering the US; and big tariffs on Chinese imports have excited his supporters and alarmed party leaders over both tone and substance – Trump’s assurances that “Paul is there” notwithstanding.

Trump has also voiced support for a higher minimum wage (decided by the states), for Planned Parenthood (except for abortion), and for transgender rights over the bathroom issue.

In short, the journey toward a unified party could be long, and if the ultimate answer is to “agree to disagree” on major issues, true unity may prove elusive. Trump reportedly said behind closed doors that he did not aim to change the party’s platform. That could mean a nominee who holds one set of beliefs and a party that stands for another.

But the platform isn’t the be-all and end-all of a party’s identity. Remember, in 1996, GOP nominee Bob Dole famously said he hadn’t read it. The platform is meaningful to core activists, not to voters, who see the presidential nominee as the party standard-bearer.

And to some longtime, faithful Republican voters, that’s the issue: A party headed by Trump and suddenly standing for Trump’s views may be hard to swallow. Whether Ryan and Co. will be able to coax him into becoming more “presidential” and more widely acceptable on policy to all wings of the party is one of the great questions of the 2016 race.

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