The speed with which prominent Republican officials and conservative spokesmen condemned Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States revealed the true stakes in the 2016 election. The future of the GOP as we know it is in question—not the party’s political future but its ideological one. Donald Trump’s candidacy is already intensifying party divisions. Nominating him would alter the character of the Republican Party in a fundamental way.
GOP voters understand this possibility. A majority backs candidates other than Trump. But the huge Republican field splits the anti-Trump vote and gives him double-digit leads in national and state polls. And while it is possible those polls overstate Trump’s support, it’s equally possible that they understate it.
Trump may not even need a majority of traditional Republican voters to win. His unusual candidacy could bring in voters new to the party or even to the political process. Whether Trump wins or loses a general election against Hillary Clinton is less important in this analysis than the effect his nomination would have on the composition and philosophy of the Republican Party. That effect would be profound.
Political parties are not static. They are born, they grow and change, they shrink and die. There is no Mosaic commandment stipulating that a party must hold to one platform over another, no natural law governing the ideology to which the party subscribes. A party is a reflection of its membership. And when the identities or character of that membership is altered, the party is too. The clearest sign that such a transformation has occurred is in the selection of a party’s nominee.
Three examples. Modern conservatism was born in 1955 with the founding of National Review, but the movement did not find political expression until the GOP nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. The Arizona senator may have been defeated in a landslide, but the conservative activists and journalists and thinkers associated with his candidacy and cause did not disappear. They grew in numbers and in influence, and prepared the way for Ronald Reagan.
The Democratic Party was once the party of the white working class—of trade unionists, Catholics, Cold War hawks. Things changed with the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. The South Dakota senator was also defeated in a landslide, but his coalition of the highly educated, minorities, and liberal antiwar activists was the beginning of the “emerging Democratic majority” you read about today.
Reagan’s nomination and election in 1980 was itself a transformation. It confirmed that the GOP was pro-life, shifted the emphasis of economic policy from deficit reduction to supply-side tax cuts, and signaled the defeat of the Kissinger wing in foreign policy. Reagan drew support from new constituencies: evangelical Christians who had been politically quiescent for decades and urban ethnic voters in revolt against liberalism. This new ideology and social base set the terms of American politics for decades.
It’s possible we are at the beginning of another political recalibration based on national identity. Already center-right parties in Japan and Russia and Israel have lurched in a nationalist direction. And where nationalists do not enjoy outright control, as in Hungary and Poland, they split the center-right coalition, as in France, the U.K., and Germany.
The tendency in Washington is not to take Donald Trump seriously. To describe him as a clown, as someone who will drop out, as someone whose beliefs are non-ideological. I believe that to dismiss him is a mistake. Since declaring his candidacy in June, Trump has been consistent on issues of immigration and trade and security. He has not deviated from building a wall on the southern border, slapping tariffs on imports, criticizing the 2003 Iraq war, praising Vladimir Putin, describing Ukraine as Germany’s problem not ours, and saying Middle East peace depends on Israeli concessions.
Trump’s nationalism has far more in common with the conservatism of Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, than with the conservatism of Ronald Reagan. Support for a “Muslim ban” is par for the course among European nationalists—by calling for it here all Trump has done is confirm how closely American politics resembles European politics. Reagan was an immigration advocate who signed the 1986 amnesty law.
Indeed, Republican nominees since Ronald Reagan have been internationalist in outlook. They have been pro-free trade and pro-immigration, have supported American leadership in global institutions, and have argued for market solutions and traditional values. A Republican Party under Donald Trump would broadly reject this attitude. It would emphasize protection in all its forms—immigration restriction, trade duties, a fortress America approach to international relations, and activist government to address health care and veterans’ care. Paeans to freedom and opportunity and equality and small government would give way to admonishments to strive, to fight, to win, to profit.
Trump’s rise has been aided by world events from the rise of ISIS to President Obama’s immigration policies to the shrinking of the middle class to the growing importance of religious and ethnic and sexual identity. But it has also been helped by the split between conservatives and Republican politicians amenable to bipartisan cooperation and gradual reform on the one hand, and conservatives and Republicans eager to make polarizing stands and wholeheartedly reject liberal premises on the other. Trump has exploited masterfully these anxieties and this disconnect, as well as disappointment with the previous Republican administration and the current Republican Congress, as he accelerates the Republican move toward nationalism.
So atypical is Donald Trump’s profile that it is impossible to say where the party will find itself when caucuses are held in Iowa on February 1. It is very possible, even likely, that the party will reject him and retain its identity as the party of Reagan and Bush. But the 2016 election has been, to say the least, unusual. And the crises of international order and domestic governance that give Trump strength are real.
Homegrown terrorism, demographic panic, racial tension, income stagnation, and Trump’s persona may catalyze a political realignment along the lines we have seen before in our politics and see currently in Europe’s. Have conservatives and Republicans thought through what would happen next? What choices we might have to make? Or are we too afraid to acknowledge the possibility that the movement and party to which we belong is no longer our own?