This week, the Republican Party convenes in Cleveland, Ohio to coronate Donald J. Trump as its nominee for president of the United States. Whatever you think of his personality or policy proposals, Mr. Trump’s accession from billionaire businessman and (relative) political outsider to general election nominee of a major political party is a fascinating story.
His candidacy challenges our assumptions of Republican voters as we traditionally understand them, and he presents a fundamental question to the Republican Party: Is Donald Trump an aberration, or is the GOP in the midst of an identity change?
It is easy to dismiss Mr. Trump as an aberration. Indeed, we have never seen a candidate quite like him in the political arena – one who insists he can’t be bought, is willing to call our elected leaders “stupid and incompetent,” and will build a border wall without making taxpayers pay for it (because Mexico will). Mr. Trump is, in no uncertain terms, a media celebrity, and his habit of saying wildly offensive things, his outrageousness, and his personal fortune all combined to give him the political room to deviate from politics-as-usual.
Mr. Trump has proven remarkably adept at capitalizing on his celebrity and mastery of mainstream media culture to subvert and end-run a party process that is designed to prevent unintended candidates – like himself – from ascending to the political mountaintop. Every time the media drew its gaze away from his underdog campaign, The Donald would say something outrageous and reclaim the spotlight. We’ve seen outrageous candidates rocket to the top of the polls before, but none of them have been able to match Mr. Trump’s media tenacity.
Mr. Trump appears to genuinely believe that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and that it only matters if you are getting more coverage than the other candidates. As far as the primary was concerned, that instinct proved spot on.
According to a report from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, the reality TV stay turned Republican nominee made up for his slow start in the polls with a boost from positive media coverage.
“Journalists seemed unmindful that they and not the electorate were Trump’s first audience. Trump exploited their lust for riveting stories,” the report found. “Trump couldn’t compete with the likes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush on the basis of his political standing or following. The politics of outrage was his edge, and the press because his dependable if unwitting ally.”
The ability to take advantage of the media speaks to the uniqueness of Mr. Trump’s candidacy and is a powerful argument for the Trump-as-aberration explanation. If you took a candidate who did not believe in media quantity over media quality, but otherwise took Mr. Trump’s policy positions, that candidate would get obliterated. From the perspective of the party, that candidate would represent the worst of both worlds – heterodox in ways that would rob him or her of party support, and establishment oriented in a way that would be uninteresting to the media in the long term. It is difficult to see, then, how Trumpism can even exist after The Donald’s star fades.
This may be comforting to mainstream Establishment Republicans who see their party in disarray, and the idea that “it’s all the media’s fault” is a convenient excuse for candidates (see Ted Cruz) to explain why they were embarrassed in the primary. But it overlooks the pernicious, and far more threatening – and, in my opinion, more likely – explanation that the Republican Party has inexorably changed and has lost its traditional conservative moorings.
For a political party that has been obsessed with party “purity,” Mr. Trump’s nomination is strangely ironic. In coronating Mr. Trump, the Republican Party is nominating an individual who is out of sync with the party’s establishment, and much of its mainstream voters, on many core issues.
Before we go any further, let’s be absolutely clear: Donald Trump is a Republican.
Mr. Trump supports large, regressive tax cuts; repeal of the Affordable Care Act, causing millions to lose health insurance; rollback of regulatory action designed to curb climate change; rollback of regulatory action designed to restrain risk-taking on Wall Street; making abortion illegal; resists all efforts to regulate gun ownership; opposes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; opposes increasing the minimum wage.
But on a lot of issues, Mr. Trump breaks with traditional Republican orthodoxy.
On some issues, Mr. Trump is to the right of party leaders. Consider the issue of immigration, for example. Republican leaders like Paul Ryan oppose “amnesty” and have pushed for enhanced border security. But they have expressed some measure of openness to reform plans combining border controls with a path to legal status. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has hijacked the default Republican position and taken it to the fringe. He has said he wants to build a big wall, has pledged to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants, and has called for a moratorium barring foreign Muslims from entering the country until we “figure out what is going on.”
These issues may irk Republican leaders, and reflect poorly on Mr. Trump’s electability in November. But they are differences the Republican Party can accept. Even if it requires them to twist themselves into a pretzel. On other issues, however, Mr. Trump is noticeably to the left of party leaders, and should be cause for concern.
Mr. Trump has promised, for example, to close tax loopholes that benefit the rich; he has expressed little concern for government spending or the national debt, at one point even suggesting the United States could just walk away from its obligations and never default because it prints money; and he has strenuously opposed cutting entitlements, saying, “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican, and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid.”
Equally notable, though, is what Mr. Trump has largely avoided addressing: the social and cultural issues that Republicans have used for decades to court the religious right.
When Mr. Trump has addressed these issues, he has demonstrated that he is far from a cultural firebrand. Mr. Trump recently broke with Republicans when he said that transgender people should be allowed to use whatever bathroom they feel most comfortable with. And when Mr. Trump has tried to play the role of cultural firebrand, he twists his record into knots. Mr. Trump has said he opposes the Supreme Court’s decision to make same-sex marriage legal across the country; yet, at one point he advocated amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Mr. Trump has called for women who seek abortions to be punished; yet, he previously described himself as “very pro-choice” and recently said that Planned Parenthood does “very good work for millions of women.”
This is not Mr. Trump “telling it like it is.”
This is Mr. Trump making up policy as he goes along.
This is him telling gleefully ill-informed people what they want to hear.
More profoundly, however, is this: these are not small departures. Mr. Trump’s success in the primary – where he smashed George W. Bush’s record 10.8 million votes in the 2000 Republican primary – is reflective of a party not merely changing its views, but changing its face.
Mr. Trump has successfully waged an open attack on the Republican Party’s core views. He successfully scrambled old divisions. He opened new wounds.
In nominating Mr. Trump on the shores of Lake Erie, the Republican Party faces fundamental questions about its identity. What do Republicans stand for? Is what it means to be a Republican changing? Will the Grand Old Party ever be the same? The answers to these questions will not be answered in Cleveland. They probably won’t be answered until long after the dust of November has settled. But when historians look to the history of the Republican Party, they would do well to look at this week in history. For it is this week that Republicans embraced an agent of change, someone who is decidedly different from earlier versions of standard bearers.
I, however, believe that this is a turning point, for which there is no return. The Republican Party has now committed itself to the Trump Cause. It has lined up behind Mr. Trump. It is inextricably linked to his proposals; it is forever linked to his rhetoric. There still remain a host of unknowns about the November election. But regardless of whether Mr. Trump wins or loses, one thing is certain: the Grand Old Party will never be the same.