How Much Will Trumpism Damage The Republican Party?
Even if Donald Trump isn't the Republican nominee in 2016, he could still end up causing real harm to the party's chances of winning the White House and holding on to the Senate.
If Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is any indication, it looks as though the Republican Party is starting to embrace Donald Trump:
Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus says he thinks Donald Trump is a “net positive” for his party.
During a TV interview on WISN’s “Upfront” this weekend in Milwaukee, Priebus, who has previously asked Trump to tone down his remarks on immigration, now says the “Trump show” is a good thing for the GOP.
“It brings a lot of interest in the Republican field. I think it’s a net positive for everybody and I think it’s an indicator that there’s a lot of folks out there who are sick and tired of Washington and Trump has tapped into that,” Priebus said. “When you have 30 million people watching [the first GOP debate], not to mention the fact that we have 16 other incredible candidates out there, I think we are showing America that we are the young, diverse party, offering a whole slew of options for people and that’s a good thing.”
The RNC chair said he would be comfortable with Trump being the Republican nominee and does not question his loyalties to the party, despite the real estate mogul’s previous support for liberal positions on issues like abortion and universal health care.
“He says he’s a Republican and I take him at his word,” Priebus said.
To be fair, of course, it’s worth noting that it’s unlikely the Priebus would say anything differently about Trump or any other candidate. Under the RNC’s own rules, the Committee and the Chairman and are not permitted to take sides in primary elections, at least not officially and publicly. This is true in the Democratic Party as well. While other party committees, such as those tied to the elections of members of the House and Senate or Governors often do take sides in primary fights, usually over the strong objections of those representing “insurgent” candidates, The national committees typically stay out of the primary fights and concentrate on building the party organization for the General Election. Additionally, the reality of the situation is that if Priebus did start attacking Trump the way that some of the other candidates have done, it would end up inuring to Trump’s benefit as part of the “anti-establishment” campaign that he has been running since getting in the race. Although, yes, it is absurd for billionaire who has been cultivating relationships with politicians in both parties for decades in order to advance his own business interests to be branding himself as an “anti-establishment” candidate, but such is the absurdity of the political circus that we’re dealing with for the 2016 election.
Keeping all that in mind, I suppose one can dismiss Priebus’s positive comments about Trump as the same kind of thing he would say about any other candidate. The difference, though, is that Donald Trump isn’t just any other candidate. Both in style and in substance he is pushing the envelope for all the Republican candidates and threatening to take the party in a direction that could cause problems for Republican politicians for years to come. His insulting rhetoric is bad enough, of course, but that’s something that we’ve come to expect from Trump the entertainer for years. Now that he’s actually proposing policy ideas, though, he threatens to have a different kind of impact.
Trump’s immigration plan, for example, is pretty much everything that the right wing of the party has been proposing for years on this issue, except on steroids. The most radical part of the plan, of course, is the idea of eliminating birthright citizenship in whole or in part and deporting millions of people, apparently without the due process that immigrants sent into the ICE system are entitled to now. This aspect of the plan is so radical that it has been condemned by many on the right, including former Bush Administration attorney John Yoo as well as pundits and political strategists such as Ben Domenech, Robert Tracinski, and Brian Schoeneman. Yesterday, George Will was out with a particularly forceful column arguing that Trump’s plan would be the ruin of the Republican Party and The Altantic’s Molly Ball wonders if the Republican Party can survive Donald Trump:
As Trump evinces surprising staying power atop the Republican field, nervous party members increasingly fret that he is hurting the image of the GOP and damaging its eventual nominee—who most assume will not be Trump. The most obvious problem is Trump’s outspoken opposition to immigration and immigrants, which has offended Hispanics—a fast-growing voter demographic the party can’t afford to lose ground with—and dragged other candidates into a discussion of inflammatory ideas like ending birthright citizenship.
But many Republican strategists, donors, and officeholders fret that the harm goes deeper than a single voting bloc. Trump’s candidacy has blasted open the GOP’s longstanding fault lines at a time when the party hoped for unity. His gleeful, attention-hogging boorishness—and the large crowds that have cheered it—cements a popular image of the party as standing for reactionary anger rather than constructive policies. As Democrats jeer that Trump has merely laid bare the true soul of the GOP, some Republicans wonder, with considerable anguish, whether they’re right. As the conservative writer Ben Domenech asked in anessay in The Federalist last week, “Are Republicans for freedom or white identity politics?”
“There is a faction that would actually rather burn down the entire Republican Party in hopes they can rebuild it in their image,” Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican admaker, told me. For his outspoken antagonism to Trump, including an op-ed calling Trump voters “Hillary’s new best friends,” Wilson has received a deluge of bile from Trump’s army of Internet trolls; his family has been threatened and his clients have been harassed. He worries that the party is on the brink of falling apart. “There’s got to be either a reconciliation or a division,” he said. “There’s still a greater fraction of people who are limited-government conservatives than people motivated by the personality cult of Donald Trump.”
the establishment feels embattled—and helpless. A Politico survey of Republican insiders in Iowa and New Hampshire, published Friday, found 70 percent saying Trump’s immigration plan was harmful to the party’s image. “He’s solidly put an anchor around the neck of our party, and we’ll sink because of it,” one Iowa Republican said. The right’s leading writers—George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Barone—have excoriated Trump, to seemingly no avail. Trump doesn’t need them; he has his own cheering section in the likes of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Breitbart.com. Trump’s rise has highlighted the distance between the Republican establishment that favors cutting Social Security, increasing immigration, and expanding free trade, and the party base that, like Trump, wants the opposite.
Many analysts blamed Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss on his rightward tack on immigration during the primaries, when he urged “self-deportation.” That was a major conclusion of the Republican National Committee’s postmortem report after Romney’s loss. “In 2012 we were talking about electrified fences and self-deportation; in 2016 we’re talking about birthright citizenship and forced, mass deportation,” Peter Wehner, a former aide to George W. Bush, told me. “That’s not a step in the right direction, and we’re doing that because of Trump.”
Party elites can already envision the attack ads of sad-eyed children being torn from their parents. The harsh immigration rhetoric doesn’t only offend Latino voters, they say—it hurts the party with other minority groups, with moderates and independents, with young voters and with women. And as other candidates have been pushed to take sides on Trump’s plans, they, too, have wandered into problematic territory. Several have said they agree with parts of his immigration agenda.
In a similar piece, conservative pundit Ben Domenech wonders whether Trump’s supporters are trying to remake the Republican Party into a “white nationalist” party:
For decades, Republicans have held to the idea that they are unified by a fusionist ideological coalition with a shared belief in limited government, while the Democratic Party was animated by identity politics for the various member groups of its coalition.This belief has been bolstered in the era of President Obama, which has seen the Democratic Party stress identity politics narratives about the war on this or that group of Americans, even as they adopted a more corporatist attitude toward Wall Street and big business (leading inevitably to their own populist problem in Sen. Bernie Sanders). What Trump represents is the potential for a significant shift in the Republican Party toward white identity politics for the American right, and toward a coalition more in keeping with the European right than with the American.
“Identity politics for white people” is not the same thing as “racism”, nor are the people who advocate for it necessarily racist, though of course the categories overlap. In fact, white identity politics was at one point the underlying trend for the majoritarian American cultural mainstream. But since the late 1960s, it has been transitioning in fits and starts into something more insular and distinct. Now, half a century later, the Trump moment very much illuminates its function as one interest group among many, as opposed to the background context for everything the nation does. The white American with the high-school education who works at the duck-feed factory in northern Indiana has as much right to advance his interest as anyone else. But that interest is now being redefined in very narrow terms, in opposition to the interests of other ethnic groups, and in a marked departure from the expansive view of the freedoms of a common humanity advanced by the Founders and Abraham Lincoln.
There is a slim possibility that what’s happening in the GOP primary campaign this summer is actually healthy and salutary, as conservative intellectual Yuval Levin argues here. But it is also possible that it represents one more way America is becoming more European. A classically liberal right is actually fairly uncommon in western democracies, requiring as it does a coalition that synthesizes populist tendencies and directs such frustrations toward the cause of limited government. Only the United States and Canada have successfully maintained one over an extended period. Now the popularity of Donald Trump suggests ours may be going away. In a sense we are reverting to a general mean – but we are also losing a rare and precious inheritance that is our only real living link to the Revolutionary era and its truly revolutionary ideas about self-government.
Many of these fears may be premature, of course. As Steven Taylor pointed out last night, and as I’ve argued myself, the strength of Trump’s lead is somewhat exaggerated by the size of the Republican field at the moment. Both because of his celebrity and his bombastic personality, Trump appears to the public to be standing far above a field of candidates that looks relatively Lilliputian by comparison. In a smaller field where there were maybe two or three more mainstream Republicans opposing him, it’s likely that Trump wouldn’t be faring so well and that Republican who oppose him would be able to unify behind a single candidate rather than stretching themselves over a field that is big enough to field two baseball teams.
It’s also possible, though, that the nativist populism that Trump is appealing to is something that will have a long lasting impact on the future direction of the party. In the short term, at least, it’s likely that whomever the Republican nominee in 2016 ends up being will find themselves having to deal with the legacy of the negative impressions that Trump’s comments about Mexicans, immigrants, and others have left with a large segment of the American public. Four years ago, Mitt Romney’s rather mild-mannered reference to “self-deportation” as a solution to the problem of undocumented immigrants ended up causing the GOP to get the lowest share of the Latino vote it had seen in many election cycles. Next year, it’s possible that Trump’s remarks will have a similar impact even if he isn’t the one at the of the ticket. If that happens, then Republicans like Priebus may come to regret their decision to welcome Trump into the party.