There’s been much debate within Republican intellectual circles, such as they are, about whether or not the GOP has changed since Donald Trump’s largely unexpected victory in the 2016 presidential election. All parties take on the personalities of the people leading them to some degree, especially when their leader ascends to the White House. But President Trump has forced the GOP into an identity crisis the likes of which neither of the major political parties has ever experienced.
For decades now, to be a Republican meant you believed in four fundamental principles. First, it meant you thought the federal government should be as small and impotent as possible. In practical terms, that means slashing taxes in order to starve the treasury (a broke government can’t do much harm) and strictly adhering to the constraints on the federal government – particularly the presidency – that are outlined in the Constitution.
Second, it meant you wanted a muscular foreign policy to protect global trade and maintain stability. America is a force for good and we shouldn’t be afraid to defend its interests abroad, the thinking goes. That meant supporting our allies, leading global institutions, and standing up to our enemies, militarily if needed. The world is stable and prosperous thanks to us, but it’s still a dangerous place, and it’s up to America to lead it.
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Third, it meant professing and upholding ‘traditional’ American values, like faith, family, patriotism, and the Bill of Rights. Republicans were the self-proclaimed true defenders of this American way of life, and the best among them felt a duty to uphold the best of those values.
And last but not least, being a Republican meant you cherished the rule of law. Laws must be followed, however banal. Law enforcement officers should be held as sacred, and all of them, from the lowest local beat cop up to the Attorney General in Washington, should be revered and respected. And, perhaps most importantly, it meant that no one is ever above the law.
This is what Republicans have long claimed to be, the party of ordinary, common sense Americans who believe in the primacy of the rule of law, the defense of western values on the international stage and traditional values here at home, and the promotion of free markets and free trade around the world.
At least that’s what they used to claim.
For the last two years, however, they’ve had to grapple with the fact that the man they elected to the White House embodies almost none of these core principles. The thrice-married, draft dodging, veteran assaulting adulterer has spent his short presidency waging war on the rule of law, dismantling global institutions, undermining trade relationships with our allies, and surrendering America’s role as an international arbiter overseas.
And yet, the base of the Republican Party loves him for it. His polling, while still quite low by recent presidential standards, is as high as it’s been during his presidency. He seems to have concluded that, as long as he keeps this core percentage of the party happy with anti-immigration and anti-globalization red meat, he can pressure enough of the more principled, traditional Republicans who are uneasy or even angry at what he’s done to their party to continue to support him – however begrudgingly.
And that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s exposed the split between what the party elites claim to stand for, and what the angry, xenophobic, homophobic base really wants. More crucially, he’s been able to insert himself between the two factions, where he now sits as the lone knot holding it all together.
This in turn has given him tremendous leverage over GOP leadership, who may not like the direction he’s taken the party, but fear what he could do were he ever to decide to turn the base against them. He could take his roughly 30% of the electorate and form his own party, were he ever to conclude that that was his best chance at reelection. While it may win him a second term, it would destroy the Republican Party for a generation or more – and they know it.
Observers both inside and outside the GOP have argued for some time that the Republican Party is already dead. It’s no longer the party of so-called conservatives and the values they championed. Now, it’s the party of Trump. The four guiding principles that have stood since at least the 1960s have been replaced by the idol worship of the president and adherence to whatever he decides to tweet any given morning, even if it contradicts something he tweeted the day before.
Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel all but confirmed this takeover late Wednesday with, appropriately enough, a tweet announcing the Party’s complete capitulation.
Complacency is our enemy. Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake.
— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) June 14, 2018
“Complacency is our enemy,” McDaniel wrote. “Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake.”
It may read like a threat from a woman in charge, but make no mistake: This tweet signals the final surrender of the GOP establishment, and it marks the end of the Grand Ole Party as know it.
The Republican Party is now the Party fo Trump, come what may.