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Will Trump Destroy the Party of Reagan?

The rogue candidate threatens the coalition of social, economic, and foreign policy conservatives.

Ron­ald Re­agan is long gone, but for dec­ades Re­pub­lic­ans have con­tin­ued to revere his al­leg­or­ic­al three-legged stool: eco­nom­ic, so­cial, and for­eign policy con­ser­vat­ives, united as one to carry the party to vic­tory.

So what hap­pens when real­ity-TV star and self-styled “com­mon-sense con­ser­vat­ive” Don­ald Trump gets stew­ard­ship of the GOP? He in­sists that So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care should be left un­altered, de­fends the non-abor­tion re­lated work of Planned Par­ent­hood, and calls NATO ob­sol­ete—thereby of­fend­ing all three ele­ments of the Re­agan trin­ity.

“He shat­ters the stool when he sits on it,” said Ari Fleis­cher, a top aide to former Pres­id­ent George W. Bush. “It’s bizarre, be­cause he has no prin­cipled, co­her­ent ideo­logy that we’re used to…. It cer­tainly won’t re­semble the stool any­more.”

What last au­tumn might have been an idle in­tel­lec­tu­al ex­er­cise is about to be­come, at least for “move­ment” con­ser­vat­ives, an ur­gent ques­tion. In as little as two months, Trump may well be the pre­sumptive pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee and tit­u­lar head of the party of Re­agan.

“At the most ba­sic level, this is a party that be­lieved it had a good shot at keep­ing the House and the Sen­ate and win­ning the White House,” said Ramesh Pon­nuru of the con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute. “With him as the nom­in­ee, we have a shot at los­ing all three. So yes, I think it would be ser­i­ous trouble.”

For Re­pub­lic­ans still in­ter­ested in the “smal­ler gov­ern­ment, more free­dom” philo­soph­ic­al un­der­pin­nings of their party that stretch back to Barry Gold­wa­ter’s 1964 can­did­acy, the pos­sib­il­ity of a Trump nom­in­a­tion be­comes even more un­set­tling.

“I don’t use the term lightly, but I really do think it cre­ates an ex­ist­en­tial crisis for the Re­pub­lic­an Party,” said Nor­man Orn­stein, a schol­ar at AEI. “He rep­res­ents so much that is ana­thema to what has been the core set of val­ues to Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship.”

With Trump al­most cer­tain to enter the sum­mer con­ven­tion with the most del­eg­ates thanks to his many primary vic­tor­ies thus far, Re­pub­lic­ans have two choices: Give Trump the nom­in­a­tion, and make him the face of the GOP, or give it to someone else, and likely drive his mil­lions of sup­port­ers away from the party, pos­sibly for years.

“Either way, it brings down the cur­tain not only on the Re­agan party, but the Gold­wa­ter party,” Pon­nuru pre­dicted.

What would come next is less clear, and would de­pend partly on wheth­er the GOP nom­in­ee wins in Novem­ber, and also on how the party lead­er­ship goes about re­pair­ing the cracks. Thomas Mann of the lib­er­al Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion won­ders if that’s even pos­sible, giv­en all that has happened.

“It’s hard to see how they breathe new life in­to a party that’s suffered a hos­tile takeover,” Mann said. “It al­most looks like it’s time for a re­place­ment party.”

A re­in­ven­tion wouldn’t be the first for the party, which in its 160-year his­tory has already un­der­gone at least two ma­jor trans­form­a­tions.

Foun­ded in 1854 by ab­ol­i­tion­ists, Re­pub­lic­ans came to be defined ini­tially by their first pres­id­ent, Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln, whose struggle to hold the na­tion to­geth­er was for dec­ades re­viled in much of the South as “The War of North­ern Ag­gres­sion.” The sub­sequent Re­con­struc­tion years, over­seen by Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tions, ce­men­ted the Demo­crat­ic Party’s dom­in­ance in South­ern states, as did Re­pub­lic­an ef­forts in the first half of the 20th cen­tury to pass civil-rights le­gis­la­tion through Con­gress.

In that peri­od, par­tic­u­larly in the dec­ades lead­ing up to World War II, the party aligned it­self more closely with busi­ness and fin­an­cial elites while ad­voc­at­ing re­straint in for­eign af­fairs. Pres­id­ent Frank­lin Roosevelt’s ef­forts to help Bri­tain in the years pre­ced­ing Pearl Har­bor, for ex­ample, were de­rided as “Mr. Roosevelt’s war.”

The vic­tory of Al­lied com­mand­er Gen. Dwight Eis­en­hower over the GOP es­tab­lish­ment in 1952 and the start of the Cold War pushed the party to a more in­ter­ven­tion­ist for­eign policy po­s­i­tion. But the more fun­da­ment­al shift fol­lowed Demo­crat­ic Pres­id­ent Lyn­don John­son’s suc­cess­ful push of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Richard Nix­on was able to cap­it­al­ize on white, work­ing-class an­ger to­ward Demo­crats, par­tic­u­larly in the South, and cobbled to­geth­er a new co­ali­tion that de­livered Re­pub­lic­ans the pres­id­ency in five out of the next six elec­tions.

It was a dra­mat­ic re­cast­ing: The party cre­ated to end slavery had en­gin­eered a “South­ern Strategy” de­pend­ent on the states that had se­ceded from the Uni­on. And as demo­graph­ic changes made the coun­try less white and moved states from Re­pub­lic­an to toss-up to Demo­crat­ic, the GOP re­li­ance on the South grew ever more pro­nounced.

In the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney won 206 elect­or­al votes, of which 118 came from the 11 states of the former Con­fed­er­acy—even though they ac­count for only a third of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion. Na­tion­ally, he won 59 per­cent of the white vote, but only 16 per­cent of the non­white vote.

Yet the Re­pub­lic­ans’ mes­sage to their new base of dis­pro­por­tion­ately South­ern, pre­dom­in­antly non-col­lege-edu­cated whites has con­sisted largely of so­cial and cul­tur­al cues—as­sur­ances that Re­pub­lic­ans sided with them on things such as pray­er in schools, abor­tion, and gun rights—rather than eco­nom­ic themes.

That, in fact, was the thes­is of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Mat­ter With Kan­sas?, which ex­plored why voters in that state typ­ic­ally sup­port Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates even though their eco­nom­ic in­terests are more in line with Demo­crats.

What Trump has done with his can­did­acy is har­vest many of those same white, work­ing-class voters but with the mes­sage that his busi­ness ex­per­i­ence will let him re­store the prosper­ity and status they have lost—all mixed in with a sub­text of stand­ing against the “oth­ers” who have been chan­ging Amer­ica, such as Lati­nos and Muslims.

To Brook­ing’s Mann, Trump’s suc­cess is jus­ti­fied comeup­pance for a party that has vil­i­fied the na­tion’s first black pres­id­ent. “The Re­pub­lic­an Party in re­cent years have set them­selves up for this,” he said, point­ing out that Trump him­self was a lead­ing pur­vey­or of the the­ory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is there­fore an il­le­git­im­ate pres­id­ent. “They ef­fect­ively sanc­tioned the most hate­ful speech. Now they’re in no po­s­i­tion to con­trol it.”

Party lead­ers, though, did try to change the tone, at least for a while. After Rom­ney’s loss, the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee con­duc­ted an “autopsy” that warned that the party had to im­prove its out­reach to non-white voters, and urged pas­sage of an im­mig­ra­tion over­haul as a good way to start. But that ef­fort was blocked in the House by mem­bers from con­ser­vat­ive, largely white dis­tricts—a de­cision that ap­peared to be val­id­ated by GOP suc­cesses in the 2014 mid-term elec­tions.

“There was this think­ing: We’ve got these voters no mat­ter what. All we’ve got to do is talk about the threat posed by the Kenyan so­cial­ist,” Orn­stein said.

Pon­nuru, who ascribes Trump’s suc­cess more to his ap­peal to na­tion­al­ism than ra­cial griev­ance, nev­er­the­less agrees that the party’s re­li­ance on a tax-cut-ori­ented eco­nom­ic policy favored by the donor class rather than the work­ing class was a mis­take. Re­pub­lic­ans’ fail­ure to pass a cred­ible al­tern­at­ive to Obama’s Af­ford­able Care Act, for ex­ample, will con­tin­ue to hurt the party among those drawn to Trump.

“They’ll take af­ford­able health care over lim­ited gov­ern­ment,” Pon­nuru said.

Yet re­gard­less of why and how Re­pub­lic­ans got to this point, the path for­ward ap­pears to de­pend en­tirely on the in­di­vidu­al at the cen­ter of their cur­rent pre­dic­a­ment: Trump him­self.

If he loses the nom­in­a­tion, does he go away am­ic­ably, or blow up the GOP on his way out? If he wins the nom­in­a­tion but loses the gen­er­al elec­tion, does he aban­don polit­ics, or con­tin­ue to stir the pot with fre­quent speeches and TV ap­pear­ances?

“If Trump sticks around, it could have huge rami­fic­a­tions, be­cause it would make it enorm­ously dif­fi­cult for the party to re­set,” said Fleis­cher, who was among the coau­thors of the 2013 Growth and Op­por­tun­ity Pro­ject re­port.

And if Trump some­how over­comes his soar­ing un­pop­ular­ity with wo­men and non­white voters and wins the pres­id­ency, that would bring an even more fun­da­ment­al re-brand­ing of the GOP, Fleis­cher said. “The party be­comes ba­sic­ally un­re­cog­niz­able,” he said. “Obama didn’t change any­thing. This would be change.”

Ad­ded AEI’s Orn­stein: “This is un­charted ter­rit­ory for mod­ern times. It’s hard to see where this goes. … The bot­tom line is you can­not come out of this with a thriv­ing, in­tact party.”