Who are the Republicans now?

Donald Trump has created a GOP identity crisis: Will he end up reinventing the party? 


Richard Drew/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appears on NBC’s ‘Today’ show in New York.

The Republican Party has a long and storied history. 

It is the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. It is the party that freed the slaves and broke up corporate monopolies, defended school desegregation and ushered in the end of the cold war. 

And now its standard-bearer is Donald Trump – billionaire businessman, reality TV star, and political novice who, to some, is a demagogue and dangerous strongman. 

To say that Mr. Trump is set to become the most controversial major-party presidential nominee in modern history may understate the case. His penchant for outrageous rhetoric – from tarring Mexicans as “drug dealers” and “rapists” to attacking women who defy him to condoning violence at his rallies to fanning conspiracy theories – is one thing. That’s part of the show, and perhaps an element Trump can dial back as he pledges to become more “presidential.” 

But more fundamentally, it is Trump’s policy views, loosely styled though they are, that have roiled the Republican coalition. Trump the protectionist, nativist firebrand with “New York values” has forsworn key elements of GOP orthodoxy and alienated party regulars, starting with House Speaker Paul Ryan, the nation’s highest-ranking Republican official. Other GOP leaders have quickly fallen in line behind Trump, if only as a bulwark against Hillary Clinton. 

The Grand Old Party could be transforming before our eyes. 

“It’s a hinge moment,” says Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman under former President George W. Bush. “This is one of those times where a door really is swinging open or closed on what it means to be a Republican.”

He continues: “Donald Trump fundamentally changes what the Republican Party is – away from being a conservative ideological party, which was also a free-trade party, into a much more loosey-goosey, amorphous populist party that’s whatever Donald Trump says it is at any given moment.” 

For many voters, it is either a bewildering or exhilarating time. Take Richard Bonomo, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has been a loyal Republican since the 1970s. Now, faced with an apparent choice in November of Trump or Mrs. Clinton, he feels stuck. 

Evan Vucci/AP
Sarah Palin is a Republican who has been a vocal supporter of Mr. Trump.

“I hope this is a nightmare, and that I’m going to wake up in a few minutes to a world that’s not too crazy,” says Mr. Bonomo, who voted for John Kasich in the primary. “This can’t be reality, right?”

Bonomo rules out voting for Clinton, whom he calls a “liar” and a promoter of policies that are “really very evil,” including on abortion. For now, he also can’t support Trump, unless the real estate mogul shows some “serious thinking” about policy. 

“My suspicions are, I may not vote at all in this presidential election,” Bonomo says. “I don’t want to bear the moral responsibility of voting for Hillary, and probably not for Trump, either.” 

Bonomo is far from alone. Some 30 percent of Republican voters who didn't back Trump in the primaries say they won't vote for him in November, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll released May 19. 

Such resistance is likely to wear down as many Trump skeptics hold their noses and vote for him anyway as a vote against Clinton. Still, the specter of Republican voters forsaking their party’s nominee in November gives party leaders chills, as does the prospect of Trump-inspired fear driving up Democratic turnout. It could cost the GOP control of the Senate and possibly even the House, as well as other down-ballot races. 

But Trump has another ace: all the new voters he’s drawn to his campaign, including first-time voters as well as independents and Democrats. Trump claims “millions” of such new voters – an exaggeration, analysts say, though the record turnouts in GOP primaries do speak to heightened engagement on the Republican side (albeit in some cases to vote against Trump). 

“Look at me,” says Carlos Law, smiling broadly and sporting a Trump T-shirt at a Trump rally in West Chester, Pa., last month. “I’ve lived half a century, and am voting for the first time.” 

Mr. Law calls himself “an inner-city ghetto kid” from Philadelphia who made it to Drexel University, then worked for Merck pharmaceuticals. He has lived the American dream, but he still identifies with the “common American” – as does Trump, he believes.

“This guy has a lotta people working for him from the low-
economic demographic,” says Law, pointing to the stage where Trump had just appeared. “I think he can identify with them.” 

Law, who calls himself a Mexican-Indian-Irish-American, is also enthusiastic about Trump’s immigration policies – including his plan to build a wall across the Southern border. 

“I’ll volunteer for that role, put the bricks on the wall,” he says. “Because I’m legal. I did it the American way.” 

Whether all the new, pro-Trump voters like Law can make up for the “never Trump” Republicans who either won’t vote, or will vote for Clinton, or vote third-party is an open question. 

But what’s clear from the primary-season exit polls is that the Trump electorate is more working-class than the GOP electorate as a whole – and increasingly concerned about stagnant wages and life prospects in general. A significant portion of Republican voters – half or more, according to some states’ exit polls during the primaries – feel betrayed by their party’s leaders and the policies they stand for, including free trade, cuts to entitlements, military interventions abroad, and a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants. 

For now, Mr. Ryan is still holding Trump at arm’s length, having expressed reservations about both his style and substance. However, after a meeting on May 12, the speaker was cautiously hopeful.

“I do believe that we are now planting the seeds to get ourselves unified,” Ryan said, adding that work was still needed to “make sure that we are operating off the same core principles.” 

In withholding an endorsement of Trump as the GOP standard-bearer, Ryan is creating a safe space for fellow Republicans to do the same, including those worried about appearing on the November ballot with him. He may also be protecting his own political future.

Before the May 12 meeting, tensions were high. A Trump spokeswoman called Ryan “unfit to be speaker.” Trump supporter Sarah Palin said she’s backing Ryan’s primary opponent in Wisconsin. Trump himself is focused on winning. “I’m going to do what I have to do – I have millions of people that voted for me,” Trump said May 8 on ABC’s “This Week.” “So I have to stay true to my principles also. And I’m a conservative, but don’t forget, this is called the Republican Party. It’s not called the Conservative Party.”

The maligning of Ryan, a respected Republican thinker, is itself extraordinary. Just last October, he reluctantly agreed to become speaker after hard-line conservatives forced out his predecessor, John Boehner. Only last month, Ryan rejected pressure to run for president, in the event the primaries did not produce a clear nominee. Four years ago, he was the GOP vice-presidential nominee. 

Cliff Owen/AP
House Speaker Paul Ryan met with Donald Trump on May 12 to try to smooth over differences.

Now, the man he ran under, Mitt Romney, is a “never-Trumper” and won’t attend the convention in Cleveland. Neither will former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and the party’s 2008 nominee, John McCain (though he says he’ll vote for Trump, reluctantly). 

Plenty of other bold-faced party names are swearing off Trump, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse, and a host of pundits. Hopes of recruiting a conservative to run as a third-party candidate face steep obstacles, including money and ballot access.

“We’re seeing the breakup of the old top-down two-party system, with power, money, and voice shifting away from the RNC [Republican National Committee] and DNC [Democratic National Committee],” says Matt Kibbe, president of Free the People, a libertarian grass-roots advocacy organization. 

“We’ve seen just constant disruption going back to 2008, and Barack Obama beating Hillary Clinton, and the rise of the tea party movement,” he adds. “I think Trump is probably part of that same phenomenon, though he’s sort of his own special animal.”

Still, one by one, most party faithful are falling in line behind Trump, including mega-donors and RNC members. Former Vice President Dick Cheney is on board. So is 1996 nominee Bob Dole, citing party unity. The latest New York Times/CBS poll finds that eight in 10 Republican voters say their leaders should back Trump even if they disagree with him on important issues. 

Whether the Republican Party is going through a historic “realignment,” it’s too soon to say. It all depends on whether Trump wins the election. “If Trump loses in November, the party basically resets, unless he decides to stay active in politics, which I doubt he would,” says Mr. Fleischer. “If Trump wins, he remakes the party.” 

Henry Burroughs/AP/File
GOP candidate Barry Goldwater greeted supporters during a stop in October 1964. Despite his landslide defeat that year, Goldwater championed a style of conservatism that came back with Ronald Reagan in 1980.

How has the Republican Party reached this moment? 

First, it’s important to remember a basic truth about major political parties in the United States: They are constantly evolving. In a rigidly binary political system – by custom, not the Constitution – both parties absorb shifts in public thought and respond to events. Insurgencies that seek to shift or overturn the parties’ course are eventually co-opted. Religious conservatives, the independent Ross Perot movement of the 1990s, and the tea party movement have all been folded into the GOP.  

Since its founding in 1854, the Republican Party has been remarkably resilient, as has the even-older Democratic Party. Hair-on-fire arguments that a Trump-dominated GOP might go the way of the Whigs make for splashy headlines but are not borne out by history.  

When Republican Barry Goldwater lost big in 1964, the party came roaring back in 1968 with Richard Nixon. And by 1980, the nation was ready for Goldwater-style “movement conservatism” as championed by Ronald Reagan. The Democrats, too, recovered after the shellacking of George McGovern in 1972 with Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976. Several generations before, the party weathered three unsuccessful campaigns by populist firebrand William Jennings Bryan. 

The Whig Party dissolved in 1854 over the issue of slavery, to be replaced by the Republican Party. Today, as much as voter discontent rages over the country’s direction – including among Democrats, many backing the populist, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders – the nation is not on the verge of civil war as it was in the mid-1800s. 

And despite concerns by conservatives that the party will lose its way under Trump, historians note that the GOP hasn’t always been the party of small government, low taxes, and states’ rights. 

“Republicans at one time were the larger-government, pro-tariff party,” writes historian David Pietrusza in an e-mail. “They later became the local government, free-trade party. At one time Republicans were more ‘isolationist.’ That changed in the 1950s as the party transitioned from Robert Taft to Dwight Eisenhower.”

The rise of Goldwater and Reagan, with the more-moderate presidencies of Nixon and Gerald Ford in between, shows that party evolution doesn’t follow a straight line. 

To historian Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College, Trump represents “the logical end of the ‘movement conservative’ takeover of the party.” The Republicans “have mobilized an angry base and not delivered.”

GOP activists agree that the rise of Trump has given the party a wake-up call, though they plead for perspective. “The Republican Party is bigger than any one candidate, bigger than Ronald Reagan, bigger than Abraham Lincoln, bigger than George W. Bush or Mitt Romney or certainly Donald Trump,” says Henry Barbour, RNC committeeman from Mississippi.

“Where Trump disagrees with traditional Republican principles and policy positions, I don’t think all of a sudden people will change their minds on these issues. But I do think, if he’s president, he’s going to have an opportunity to lead on issues like trade and immigration.” 

For a President Trump – new to politics and new to government – working with Congress and foreign leaders could be the challenge of a lifetime. And his effect on the Republican Party could be the least of his legacies. 

•     •     •

The rise of Trump represents more than just one man’s extraordinary foray onto the American (and world) political stage. “Trumpism” has now entered the lexicon, shorthand for his blend of populism and nativism, delivered with the charisma of a celebrity outsider. 

Voices on the left and right warn darkly that Trump could also be a proto-fascist, citing as one example his proposal last November to force Muslims in America to register in a federal database – an idea he then backed away from. 

Trump has also shown little regard for freedom of the press, threatening to go after media outlets that criticize him. Add to that larger concerns that a President Trump might push the envelope with executive power beyond what President Obama has done, if faced with an uncooperative Congress. Questions abound over how committed he is to following the letter of the Constitution. 

On policy, “Trumpism” echoes the platform of Pat Buchanan’s insurgent campaigns in the 1990s on immigration, trade, and a noninterventionist “America first” foreign policy. (See separate interview with Mr. Buchanan.) Trump’s tax plan, which independent analysts say would add $10 trillion to the debt over 10 years, and loose rhetoric on how he’d handle the debt ceiling and foreign alliances have induced jitters. And his views on social issues – praising Planned Parenthood (except on abortion), siding with liberals on transgender matters – concern religious conservatives. 

Ahead of the July convention, conservatives are maneuvering aggressively to preserve the Republican Party platform, despite reassurances from Trump that he doesn’t aim to change it. He has also sought to reassure conservatives by releasing a list of potential nominees to the Supreme Court. But ultimately, Trump answers to no one. And beyond his “big three” issues, Trumpism really isn’t about policy. It’s also not really a movement. It’s more about Trump as a personality – a larger-than-life figure who represents, to some, the 2016 version of hope and change. 

•     •     •

In a way, the Republican Party is in better shape than the Democrats. The GOP controls both houses of Congress and a majority of governorships, and has a deeper bench of talent. Since Mr. Obama took office, the Republicans have gained 913 state legislative seats. 

If not for Trump, the big story of the 2016 cycle might be “Democratic Party in crisis.” Senator Sanders’s unexpectedly strong populist appeal has forced Clinton to scramble, and while she is still on track to win the Democratic nomination, her path to the presidency is far from guaranteed. The Times/CBS poll shows 28 percent of Sanders's primary supporters unwilling to vote for Clinton in November. And after the recent unrest by Sanders supporters at the state party convention in Nevada, it may be the Democrats who end up with a disruptive national convention this summer. 

In another way, both parties are in tough shape. Their presumed presidential nominees have historically high negatives, public disgust with Washington is sky-high, and party affiliation for both is dwarfed by those who identify as “independent.” 

According to Gallup, 42 percent of US adults call themselves political independents, with 29 percent identifying as Democratic and 26 percent Republican. When “leaners” are added in, Democrats account for 46 percent of Americans, and Republicans 40 percent. 

But amid the uncertainties of 2016’s populist uprising, Trump may have an opening. And, perhaps improbably, Republican activists believe their 2013 “autopsy” report for the RNC, aimed at helping the party regain the White House, is still relevant. The report highlighted the nation’s demographic shifts, and the urgency of attracting more women, young voters, and minorities to the GOP. Its sole policy recommendation was to pass comprehensive immigration reform. 

“Donald Trump has got to go into traditional African-American communities, traditional Hispanic communities, Asian communities, with a message of hope for getting the country back on track, with better jobs and better education for all Americans,” says Mr. Barbour, a coauthor of the report. 

The task may seem hopeless; polls show Clinton with a formidable lead over Trump among minorities. Hispanic voters, who have turnout rates 20 percentage points lower than those of whites and blacks in recent presidential elections, are registering to vote in vast numbers. Legal residents are lining up to become citizens just so they can vote against Trump.  

But not all voters vote their ethnicity, as Carlos Law in Pennsylvania shows. Then there’s Jeffrey Cole, an African-American bus driver in Washington, D.C., who confides that he’s ready to vote for Trump. Standing in line at a bank recently, he expressed frustration with how few tellers there were – and how businesses are moving toward automation to avoid hiring people. 

“People need jobs, especially in my community,” says Mr. Cole, not his real name, which he did not want published. “Maybe Donald Trump can do something about this.”

Still, whether Trump can win significant minority votes – let alone improve on Mr. Romney’s performance in 2012 – remains in doubt. But as both parties’ primaries have shown, this cycle has been unpredictable. 

“Trump is a product of a country that is just off track, unsure of itself, unsure of its leadership, desperate, and willing to give a guy like Donald Trump a chance to lead us,” says Barbour, who did not back Trump in the primaries but says he’ll vote for him in November. “It’s a risky bet. But I’ll tell you what, I know what we’re going to get with Hillary.” 

If Trump loses the election, perhaps the Republican Party will learn from more time in the wilderness, some GOP activists suggest. Already, the rise of Trump has taught the party that its traditional platform has missed the mark with a significant slice of its electorate. 

The Republican establishment has also learned that it can’t shape a nomination race to its will, and that outside groups funded by mega-donors were no match for a charismatic billionaire with a genius for grabbing free TV coverage and dominating social media. 

To some Republican activists, in fact, Trump’s victory signals the end of the national party as a private organization that has any say in selecting its standard-bearer. Open primaries, which allow eligible voters to cast a ballot regardless of their views, are particularly problematic, they say.  

“We have no party anymore,” says Curly Haugland, RNC committeeman from North Dakota since 1999.

Perhaps all the GOP can do from here, with a unique character like Trump, is step aside and hand him the keys. And even if Trump loses in November, he’s shown the way to the nomination with a message of nativism and economic populism. Trumpism versus conservatism could continue to divide the party all the way to 2020. ρ

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