WASHINGTON ― Three years after a hostile takeover and two years into the resulting presidency, Republican leaders and activists have yet to confront a looming existential question: What is the future of their party the day Donald Trump is gone?
Because while the Trump presidency is creating consequences for the nation and the world that could take years to undo, the one institution that will be the most dramatically altered is the 165-year-old political party that put him into the White House.
And whether Trump’s last day in office is just one month away following a sudden resignation or six years off following a second term, Trump’s chaotic, fact-free personality cult thus far has no obvious heir apparent. At the same time, the president’s daily dishonesties, repeated insults of large segments of the electorate and likely collusion with a foreign power to win his election may have poisoned his adopted party’s brand for many elections to come.
“We’re in a demographic death spiral,” said Republican consultant John Weaver, a top aide to former Ohio GOP Gov. John Kasich. “If we were Coca-Cola or Delta or any product on the market, would you be happy that your customers, your base of support, were old, white and closed-minded?”
Trump had little to do with the Republican Party before entering its presidential primary nearly four years ago. He was not a major donor. He had never run for so much as a local committeeman post. He was never a campaign surrogate or ever considered for a presidential appointment in previous administrations.
Nevertheless, with a combination of blatantly race-based appeals to a key segment of the GOP base and boasts that his business “savvy” would bring back long-disappeared manufacturing jobs, Trump managed to beat out more than a dozen rivals to grab the nomination.
“He hijacked our party, and people went along with it,” said Weaver, who had previously worked for Arizona Sen. John McCain. “And we have try to fix it for the sake of the country.”
That, though, may be easier said than done. Most of the changes Trump has imposed on the country have been through executive actions and by altering internal policies at the various executive agencies. As such, they can be undone just as easily by the next president. Similarly, tariffs that have been unilaterally imposed can be unilaterally lifted, and overseas allies that have been rattled by Trump may be soothed by his successor, albeit over a period of years.
Changes to what has now been Trump’s party for three years may be far stickier.
Trump hand-picked a Republican National Committee chair so loyal to him personally that she even stopped using her full name at his suggestion. Committee members who had opposed Trump, meanwhile, tended to either rehabilitate their views or not run for re-election. The RNC now routinely backs Trump’s falsehoods and fear-mongering about immigrants, while Trump’s success has spawned a cohort of mimics, running their campaigns featuring anti-minority, anti-fact themes.
Shawn Steel, a prominent RNC member from California, said Trump’s style and tactics were proven correct on Nov. 8, 2016. “He’s different. He’s done something that our nice guy moderate Republicans couldn’t do. He won.”
From Dog Whistle To Bullhorn
Trump certainly was not the first Republican nominee to harness racial animus and xenophobia to win the White House.
That distinction goes to Richard Nixon, who in 1968 targeted white voters, primarily in the South, who remained angry at the Democratic Party because of President Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act.
Using coded themes about “law and order,” Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” let him break into a region that had voted almost exclusively for Democratic presidential nominees since the end of Reconstruction. His resulting victory began the decades-long process that turned the South into a Republican stronghold and flipped the parties’ traditional positions on race. Democrats had for the first half of the century supported segregation while Republicans had generally supported more rights for former slaves and their descendants. Starting in Nixon’s presidency, more and more segregationist Democrats switched to become Republicans, with the remaining Democrats far more in line with the more liberal national party.
Republican nominees after Nixon continued relying on this racially divisive approach for decades. From Ronald Reagan’s apocryphal Cadillac-driving welfare queen to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton television ad to son George W. Bush’s defense of the Confederate flag, appeals to disproportionately Southern, disproportionately rural white voters was an important part of their campaigns.
What made Trump’s approach different was his willingness to replace the previous candidates’ dog whistles with a bullhorn.
On the day of his announcement speech, Trump called Mexicans who crossed the southern border rapists and drug smugglers and then insulted the Mexican government by claiming he would build a “great, great” wall and force that country to pay for it.
Subsequently, he insulted a federal judge of Mexican heritage, attacked the Muslim parents of an Army officer who died protecting his troops and promised to stop Muslims from even entering the country.
“Trumpism appeals almost exclusively to those folks ― overtly racist scumbags,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant and outspoken Trump critic since the start of the GOP primary in 2015. He estimated that Republicans motivated mainly by race make up about 12 percent of the primary voting base. “They’re a small faction, but a loud faction. … The rest of the party is along for the ride. They’re stuck.”
At the very first GOP primary debate, in August 2015, when Trump insulted his rivals onstage, the RNC members and their invited guests in the Cleveland audience booed loudly.
But out in the land of voters, the primary electorate ate it up. Even at the “Red State” gathering of Christian conservatives in Atlanta, Trump was hands down the most popular character on the giant screens at the hotel ballroom where the debate was being televised.
“They’re just glad that someone’s finally saying what they want said,” Erick Erickson, the conference host, said at the time. “Donald Trump is at least willing to throw the punches they [the others] are not willing to throw.”
‘Sounds Like A Joke Now’
In the summer of 2013, then-RNC Chairman Reince Priebus unloaded on his party’s nominee the previous year. “Using the word ‘self-deportation’ ― I mean, it’s a horrific comment to make,” he said.
Mitt Romney’s suggestion during the primaries, that those in the country illegally would “self-deport” as a result of his policies, was mild compared to statements from other Republicans running that year. Herman Cain, for instance, even proposed an electrified border fence.
Nevertheless, Romney’s loss to President Barack Obama in a race many Republicans were confident they would win provoked a serious effort to dig into what went wrong and to fix it before 2016. While many of the reforms had to do with better use of voter data and earlier deployment of field staff into key states, the marquee recommendation was that the party had to do a better job with nonwhite voters, particularly Latinos.
“If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity,” the report stated. “If Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, recently laughed at the memory, and of the outrage heaped on Romney, given where Trump has taken things.
“Sounds like a joke now,” he said.
The irony of the 2012 “autopsy” recommendation and the eventual victory of Trump was not lost on the party’s elder statesmen back in 2016.
“Certainly Donald Trump has gone in the opposite direction from what we recommended,” Ari Fleischer, a former top aide to President George W. Bush and one of the autopsy’s authors, said at the time. “The things he is espousing are absolutely detrimental to the party. … For every good point Trump makes, he makes so many derogatory, nasty points. He loses people when he should be winning people.”
I don’t think the party can survive just on hoping for more Supreme Court justices.
Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida
Fleischer’s view was common among Republicans ― that Trump would likely lose that November to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and that their party would face a long period of rebuilding.
But when Trump unexpectedly won, the majority of Republican detractors muted their criticisms and seemed to decide that Trump must have been correct all along ― particularly when he rubber-stamped long-standing GOP goals of cutting taxes, repealing regulations and appointing a list of judges compiled by outside conservative groups.
“Donald, just bring me in more judges. A lot more judges,” Steel, the RNC member, said.
As to the cost such appeasements to Trump’s character ― near constant falsehoods; frequent outbursts of temper; childish taunts against any and all perceived threats ― will impose on the party, that is a different problem for a different day.
“It’s part of the growth and maturation of political parties and political movements,” Steel said, adding that the Republican Party would survive just fine, one way or the other. “It will probably go on for another 150 years.”
A ‘Heavy Price’
To “Never Trumpers” like Cardenas and Weaver, a party that has fashioned itself into supporting the likes of Trump does not deserve to survive, not for any length of time.
“They became Patty Hearst to Trump’s SLA,” Weaver said of today’s RNC, referring to the publishing heiress who was kidnapped by a left-wing militant group only to later join it. “Until that is burned down to the ground, and acid thrown on top of it, and we start over, there is no Republican Party.”
“I don’t think the party can survive just on hoping for more Supreme Court justices,” said Cardenas, adding that restoring the party to goals of limited government, free trade and a multilateral foreign policy are still doable now, but will become nearly impossible if Trump were to win a second term.
“It will depend on how the Trump era ends,” he said. “If the next couple of years are difficult for him, if the economy is difficult for him, if the Mueller report is scathing, if his nomination is in doubt ― then yeah, I think the party can disown him.”
The first order of business toward that end, Trump’s GOP critics agree, is to make sure a serious Republican runs against him for the 2020 nomination. Only three incumbent presidents have lost elections over the past four decades: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. All three had credible challenges from within their parties for the nomination. In the case of Ford and Carter, those challenges nearly succeeded.
So far, Weaver’s once-and-perhaps-future boss Kasich has made the most overt moves toward launching a toward launching a 2020 campaign, with a visit to New Hampshire in November and delivering among the most pointed GOP criticisms of Trump over his first two years. Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse and Romney, now a senator from Utah, are also thought to be considering challenges. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is the latest focus of speculation, as he plans a trip to Iowa in March.
Trump began raising money for his re-election the day he took office, and will have not only a huge financial edge but the advantages of incumbency ― flying to his rallies aboard Air Force One and winning incalculable amounts of attendant free publicity. And while a damaging report from special counsel Robert Mueller could bring on impeachment proceedings or even a sudden resignation, such circumstances cannot be counted on by potential challengers, Cardenas agreed.
He hopes at least one candidate will take the fight to Trump regardless. “There is a true Republican story to be told in a campaign. For the sake of our party,” he said. “Whether they win the nomination or not, they are preserving the values of the party, and hopefully building a base for the future.”
Implicit is the hope that Trump, should he wind up the nominee, lose his re-election, and that the Democrats take the Senate, as well.
“It will take significant political pain for the party to disown Donald Trump, and so far we have not experienced that level of pain,” Cardenas said.
The recent midterm elections, when Republicans lost 40 House seats and control of that chamber, was a respectable start to that “pain,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. But he added that by itself is not enough to force lasting change.
“It will take three election losses in a row,” he said ― meaning Democrats will need to win back the White House and Senate in 2020 and then hold both chambers of Congress in 2022 before it becomes clear to Republicans that they need fundamental reforms.
“It has to be a recognition that it’s something deep and you have the danger of being sent to the ash bin of history,” Ornstein said. “I don’t think it can survive the way it’s going. Until and unless it’s replaced by a problem-solving conservative party, and not a Trump party.”
For Weaver, the danger of leaving behind a “Trump party” is the biggest threat of all ― a generation of local, state and federal elected officials mimicking Trump’s verbiage.
“How do you bottle up all that racism and misogyny that homophobia that he’s unleashed on the country?” he said. “The party is going to pay a heavy price for this, and they should.”