How to Tell If the GOP Has Become a Trump Party

by Dan McLaughlin

Is the Republican party now Donald Trump’s party? Democrats and liberal pundits naturally love to say that since Trump is the party’s presidential nominee, he is the head of the party, and his ideas and characteristics are those of the party. This is a normal way of looking at things, when the presidential nominee is already within the general mainstream of the party’s factions, and there’s no way to stop people from using this syllogism as a talking point so long as Trump is clinging to the nomination. Moreover, the taint of Trump on the party’s image will likely linger long past his defeat in November.

But the bigger question is whether the GOP is actually going to be a different party in the future: will it adopt a different agenda? A different rhetorical style? A different foreign policy? A different view of candidate recruitment and qualification?

The hard part in answering that question is defining “Trumpism.” Trump, after all, is himself hard to define on a lot of issues, and his views on them are often not very thought-out. And many of the things his fans defend about Trump may not actually be characteristics they would want in a future candidate. Would a Trumpist party recruit only candidates who have previously lavished donations on their opponents? Would a Trumpist party reject candidates who have previously run for office as a Republican or been involved in conservative causes? Would a Trumpist party value boorishness and ignorance for their own sake, as opposed to tolerating them in exchange for rejecting “political correctness”? Would a Trumpist party demand fealty to Putin’s Russia, support for Planned Parenthood, and enthusiasm for single-payer health care? Most likely, a Trumpist party would have a lot of tolerance for those things, but would not see itself as defined by many of the aspects of Trump that are most ideologically troubling to conservatives.

That said, we can identify a few clear fault lines that would suggest the GOP is becoming more Trumpist. Clearly, a Trumpist party would have the following characteristics:

  • Anti-immigration: not just anti-amnesty for illegal immigrants but in favor of restricting overall immigration on the theory that immigrants reduce the demand for native-born labor

  • Hostile to free trade

  • More skeptical of foreign alliances and foreign interventions than the GOP has traditionally been

  • Opposed to entitlement reforms

  • Stylistically in favor of more bombast and fewer polite, cerebral politicians

  • Strategically in favor of more confrontation, less incrementalism

  • Less interested in outreach across racial lines, and more in favor of divisive issues like restricting immigration by disfavored groups such as Muslims

  • Less interested in fights over matters of concern to religious voters such as abortion and religious liberty

Now, while I personally am on the other side of every item on this list, there is certainly a strategic case to be made for the GOP finding compromise ways to accommodate some of these viewpoints within the party; that’s how political coalitions work. It is possible we will see some movement on issues or rhetoric by conventional Republicans in this direction (we have not seen a lot of that yet, although the Congressional GOP is avoiding trade and immigration votes as best it can). But a more dramatic transformation will happen only if Republican politicians see one of two things: that Trump is more politically successful than “normal” Republicans, and that there is more demand for Trumpism when it is separated from the personality, celebrity, and wealth of Trump himself.

So, let’s look at two major signs to look for over the next several months that this might be so:

  1. Primary losses by Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and John McCain: While Ryan, Rubio, and McCain don’t agree on every issue, they are loudly hated in common by the Breitbart/Trump wing of the party primarily for being pro-immigration, pro-trade, pro-entitlement reform foreign-policy internationalist “globalists.” All three face the voters this month: Ryan on August 9, McCain and Rubio on August 30. All three have primary opponents (Paul Nehlen, Kelli Ward, and Carlos Beruff, respectively) who are playing on Trump themes like immigration (Nehlen wants to deport Muslims; Beruff — a real estate tycoon — has hit Rubio incessantly on the Gang of Eight) and are criticizing the candidates for being insufficiently supportive of Trump. Trump won Florida and Arizona easily in the primary, although he lost Ryan’s district. Ryan’s primary is open, McCain’s is open to independents. True, all three are entrenched incumbents with long electoral histories and massive fundraising and endorsement advantages, but if you listen to Trump supporters, those things were beaten by Trump’s message in the primaries (rather than by his massive advantage in free media and the unique dynamics of an overcrowded field). If they truly represent a popular rebellion against the kinds of politics represented by Ryan, Rubio, and McCain, then we should see signs of that at the ballot box.

    So far, we haven’t. Despite breathless predictions from outlets such as Breitbart and Salon, most of the polling we have so far shows Ryan up by 50 points or so, Rubio up around 30, and McCain (who has been on a lot of non-Trump conservatives’ hit list for years) up by double digits. And even the Trump camp doesn’t seem to think they are likely to be rid of any of the trio; besides Mike Pence’s prior endorsement of Ryan and rapid reversal to clarify his support for McCain yesterday, we also saw Trump publicly endorsing Rubio and (it is rumored) possibly endorsing Ryan tonight in Green Bay. That’s not a sign of confidence that there’s a groundswell about to sweep away the old guard. Maybe we will be surprised; there’s still almost a month to go in Florida and Arizona, and in particular McCain at 80 years old may yet just run out of luck. But if all three win their primaries comfortably, it will be a sign that the GOP is still a traditional Republican party with a Trump faction, as opposed to a Trump party with a traditional Republican faction.

  2. Trump running ahead of normal Republicans: If Trump’s approach is an improvement on the way the GOP has done things in the past and is truly bringing in more new voters than it drives away, we should expect Trump to do better with the general electorate than other Republicans with whom he shares the ticket.  How’s that going so far?

    As you can see from the chart, which I took from today’s RCP polling averages, across twelve states that have enough of a contested presidential and Senate contest to have a polling average, Trump is running on average 3.6 points weaker than the Republican candidate for Senate. The only Senate candidates running behind Trump are Darryl Glenn (a relatively unknown challenger to a Democratic incumbent in Colorado), Ron Johnson (who is facing a well-known former Democratic senator in Russ Feingold), and Roy Blunt in Missouri. Candidates like Rubio, McCain, Pat Toomey, and Chuck Grassley are running six or seven points ahead of Trump. Even Kelly Ayotte, who is currently trailing her state’s sitting governor, is six points ahead of Trump. It’s not just incumbents: Joe Heck is running 2.8 points ahead of Trump in Nevada’s contest for Harry Reid’s open Senate seat. And aside from Glenn, none of these candidates are more than the tiniest bit Trumpish. If most of them end up running ahead of Trump, it is likely that the GOP’s leaders will come away from this election asking, “How do we get Trump’s voters to back our candidates?” rather than, “How do we run candidates like Trump?”​​

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