Trump poised to reshape GOP, no matter what

House Speaker Paul Ryan's brand of small-government conservatism might be evolving in ways that echo beyond Donald Trump. 

John Amis/AP/File
A supporter listens to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Norcross, Ga., last year.

The factions that constitute today’s Republican Party may have reached a parting of the ways, as House Speaker Paul Ryan and presidential nominee Donald Trump engage in an extraordinary political struggle over the soul of the GOP with Election Day less than one month away.

What sort of political organization will emerge in its aftermath? Will Nov. 9 mark the beginning of the return of the GOP of Representative Ryan – traditional, conservative, devoted to smaller government and lower taxes? Or is the Republican Party now the Party of Trump, nativist, populist, nostalgic for an undefined past?

If Mr. Trump wins the election, he almost certainly wins this intramural contest, as well. Presidents are the face of their party. The billionaire’s priorities and supporters would define the GOP after four (or eight) years in power.

If Trump loses, the outcome is far less predictable. It is possible that he will fade almost as quickly as he emerged, defeat having punctured his bellicose image. But it is also possible, maybe even probable, that the billionaire is the face of permanent party change, and the GOP will morph into something far from Ryan’s Reaganite vision.

“Now that he is the charismatic leader of what is clearly a faction within the Republican Party, it is hard to see the Republican Party casting Trump and Trumpism aside,” emails Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at the think tank New America. “Even if Trump himself were to recede (which seems unlikely), the factions that have emerged are too disparate to unite under a single leader.”

By the same token, establishment Republicans are unlikely to start a new party, which would sacrifice majorities in the House and Senate for years to come.  

Redefined by Trump

Trump has clearly redefined how the GOP views undocumented immigrants, for instance. His tough views pushed virtually all his Republican primary rivals in his direction. Opposition to a path for citizenship for those present in the US illegally may now be a litmus test for future GOP presidential aspirants. That’s a huge change from 2012, when the Republican National Committee’s so-called “autopsy” report on Mitt Romney’s loss stressed outreach to Hispanics as a top priority.

Similarly, Trump may have flipped the party’s long-standing pro-free trade position. His tirades about jobs lost to China and Mexico, and the need to reverse that trend, get the crowds at his rallies roaring. It is difficult to see how Ryan, if he runs in 2020 following a Trump loss, could finesse this change without losing some of the Trump blue-collar white male base.

That’s because with both free trade and immigration Trump has exploited an existing split between GOP voters and leaders. He didn’t create it – just noticed it was there. In 2014, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs took a unique survey matching rank-and-file voters against their party elites. At the time, 55 percent of GOP voters said that immigrants and refugees coming into the US were a critical threat to the nation – but only 16 percent of Republican leaders held the same view. Only 27 percent of GOP voters said the US should accept Syrian refugees, while a whopping 71 percent of leaders said the US should accept them.

About a third of GOP voters opposed free trade pacts under almost all circumstances, according to the Chicago Council data. But 90 percent of GOP leaders disagreed, and supported such deals.

Demographic trends within the Republican Party underlie many of these attitudes. The GOP is becoming whiter, older, more male, and less educated than the nation as a whole, according to Pew Research data. During the years of the Obama presidency, GOP gains among whites and men have enabled the party to offset corresponding Democratic gains among nonwhites and women, according to Pew.

Challenge to Ryan's orthodoxy 

At the least, it seems as if the political orthodoxy that has defined Paul Ryan’s career is not going to be the exclusive ideology of the Republican Party in the near future. He climbed the GOP’s ranks at a time when traditional conservatism, as defined by the persona of Ronald Reagan, symbolized the party. Trump’s rise has cast that era in a new light.

“Something else seems to be the primary motivator of GOP voters, something closer to the neighborhood of cultural conservatism and racial and economic grievance rather than a passion for small government,” wrote the data-oriented site FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone in July.

This doesn’t mean that Ryan won’t be Mr. Republican in the event of a Trump loss. Many voters are motivated more by team-like adherence to partisanship than by positions on specific issues. Only the most passionate party supporters have anything approaching a personal ideology through which they judge the US political world.

But it does mean the GOP may be entering a period of instability unprecedented in the modern era. If Trump loses, party leaders may vacillate between approaches, first attempting to unite the GOP around a general anti-Clinton philosophy, then perhaps acceding to certain aspects of Trumpism, writes Mr. Drutman in Vox.

Whether that works for Republicans, and produces a party that can win presidential elections at a time when the US is becoming less white, remains to be seen.

“After a long period of stable gridlock, American politics is now entering a newly chaotic period. The party coalitions are realigning,” according to Drutman. 

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