Before Republicans in Congress began to coalesce around Donald Trump this week, there was Sen. Jeff Sessions.
This soft-spoken conservative from Alabama was the only senator to endorse Mr. Trump before he became the presumed presidential nominee. As one of the Senate’s staunchest opponents of the Pacific trade deal and immigration reform, the diminutive Southerner has tried to convince his colleagues that Trump is the right candidate with the right message – that free trade and illegal immigration are killing jobs and wages.
They didn’t listen. But, speaking to a scrum of reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Senator Sessions said he's urging his colleagues to reconsider. The senator said he would be “worried” if Republican congressional candidates separated themselves from the core of Trump’s message, because “Donald Trump is part of a movement.”
His comment encapsulates a fundamental question facing the Republican Party, members of Congress included: Does Trump’s success represent more than the anomaly of a bombastic outsider in an election year where voters are hungry for change?
If he’s a movement, then the party is obviously missing something. Adjustments in message and policy – perhaps a complete rebranding – will need to be made, especially if Trump wins in November. Sessions isn’t the only one who thinks the party may need to pivot.
But many Republicans believe Trump is an outlier. They describe him as an army of one, a phenomenon, propelled by his celebrity status, his money, his plain and sometimes vulgar and insulting language, and lots and lots of free media. His policy ideas are undeveloped and fluctuating. He has no slate of candidates seeking other offices.
Trump’s feat was to stay atop a field of 17 candidates who mostly shot each other. “Fratricide,” is how John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., describes the primary race. He and others see little evidence that Trump has brought in new voters, and point out that incumbents are safely winning their primary races.
“There doesn’t seem to be any movement party-wide. It’s all about Trump,” says Mr. Pitney.
The question of whether Trump is a movement or a one-off is a hugely important one for the direction of the GOP.
Some insiders say the party sloughs off Trump at their peril.
A business-style 'case study'
“It would be a mistake not to study what’s going on,” says Rep. Dave Brat (R) of Virginia, who ousted former House Republican majority leader Eric Cantor from his seat in an upset victory in 2014. Congressman Brat, an economist and professor, likens the Trump phenomenon to a business case study.
“If you’ve got a competing business that takes away 30 percent of your market share, in this case consumers of politics, what would you do? You would immediately begin studying and seeing why my consumers are going that way, and not my way.”
But what if Trump is so unique that his impact is impossible to interpret? Win or lose, can any lessons be learned from such an atypical candidate?
“I’m not sure what this general election will tell us, because this Trump thing is a once-in-a-century phenomenon. I don’t think there are grand things to be learned. No one could overcome an 8-to-1 media advantage,” says GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak.
A Trump ally from New York, Rep. Chris Collins staunchly disagrees with the once-in-a-century view. “Bernie Sanders is tapping into the same frustration in America on the Democrat side, so if Trump’s an anomaly, so is Bernie Sanders,” he says.
In a way, both views are right here. Trump truly is a phenomenon, explains Amy Walter, of the independent Cook Political Report. His celebrity and his ability to understand and manipulate the media are unique to him, she says. But the forces that have contributed to his rise have been building and aren’t going away. They’re forces like globalization, demographic and cultural changes, and displacement of people by technology.
Those forces are contributing to a class divide and Trump has recognized that. He may have won only 42 percent of the popular vote, Ms. Walter points out, but he’s won almost half of the non-college primary voters.
This makes for an election landscape that’s harder to interpret with a candidate like Trump. “It’s not as clean and easy as if you had an evangelical” running, Walter says. “Trump accurately reflects the multifaceted divisions within the party fueled by economic, demographic, social, and cultural changes in the country.”
Coming to grips
Inside the halls of Congress, Republicans are still shocked at Trump’s rise to presumptive-nominee status after his last two opponents suddenly quit in early May. Most people had expected a contested convention in July. Now they’re grappling with the result: what it will mean for their own races, for party unity, and for the White House.
Some think Trump reflects a political realignment and that Republicans would be well advised to study his success and adjust accordingly.
For too long, the GOP has been an "elite" party overly concerned with ideology, says John Feehery, who was spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois during the George W. Bush administration. “This has got to be a wake-up call. I don’t know if people get it yet, but Republican reliance on pure ideology is not good enough.”
Sessions puts this point more bluntly: “We got a lot of silk-stocking, country-club, good-manners people” who are uneasy with Trump, he said in his comments Tuesday. They don’t think he’s sophisticated.
“I think we’re finding quite differently,” said Sessions, who describes Trump – whom he is advising – as smart, hard-working, strong, and courageous. “The party should focus on working Americans. People who make $50,000 or less,” the senator says.
But Republicans have very different approaches to to the political terrain of 2016. That has been evident in the divide between Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin. Speaker Ryan has yet to endorse Trump – though he appears to be getting closer since he and other Republican leaders met with Trump on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Mr. Ryan is a policy expert, whose positions on trade, immigration, and Social Security and Medicare don’t jibe with Trump’s. The speaker brought charts to the meeting and talked about the dangerous fiscal trajectory in America. The two men put out a joint statement recognizing “their many important areas of common ground,” and Ryan said at a press conference that policy teams will continue to work things through.
Rifts: not that unusual
It's not necessary to come to complete agreement, Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma points out. Republicans have run on "principled positions" and have done well on them, building a large majority in the House and retaking the Senate in 2014. He doesn't expect members to give up their beliefs, and they don't need to, he says.
For instance, there were gaps between Republicans and President George W. Bush on immigration and Social Security. "You learn to live with those," said Congressman Cole, who used to run the House GOP election effort. Ryan and Trump will find areas of common ground, and where they don't, "they'll agree to disagree."
Trump reportedly has said he won’t demand changes in the Republican platform, but as observers such as Pitney point out, nominees – and presidents – freely wander from policy platforms.
As for whether a realignment in the party is necessary, it’s too early to tell, Pitney says. He points out that even in 1980, it wasn’t at all clear that Ronald Reagan would win.
“We’ll see what the world looks like after Election Day.”
That is, If people can figure out what a Trump victory – or loss – would even mean.