Trump Has Not Transformed the Republican Party – Yet

The state of Paul Ryan’s Republican Party is strong. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The anti-Trump Republican is going extinct. For the moment, one can still observe such rare elephants in the special reserves that cable-news networks and op-ed pages have established for them. But chances of spotting one in the wild are slim: Donald Trump currently boasts the second-highest “own party” approval rating in recorded history, at 87 percent.

And prospects of seeing a real-live NeverTrumper on Capitol Hill may soon be even slimmer. On Tuesday, Republican primary voters in South Carolina told Congressman Mark Sanford to take a hike, for having dared to criticize the president’s “cult of personality.” That same night in Virginia, the neo-Confederate Trump disciple Corey Stewart won his party’s nomination for U.S. Senate, much to the consternation of the GOP Establishment. Those results came one week after Alabama Republicans evicted Representative Martha Roby from the House for failing to know harmless “locker-room talk” when she heard it.

These developments (among others from primary season) have led the political media to declare the formation of a “new Republican Party,” created in Trump’s image. The New York Times heralds Trump’s “transformation of the G.O.P.”; Politico declares that the time has come to “Put a blond combover on the elephant” and “Take down the pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.”

But reports of the old Grand Old Party’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Without question, there is now conclusive evidence that it is politically unwise for most rank-and-file Republicans to criticize their own party’s president. But this is not a sign that Trump has rewritten the rules of GOP politics, only that NeverTrumpers have failed to do so (there is nothing unusual about Republican officials showing fealty to their standard-bearer). And in policy terms, it remains the case that the party that Trump inherited has transformed him far more than he has transformed it.

To make the opposite argument, one must substitute a NeverTrump Republican’s mythical account of her own party’s history for its actual one — while ignoring how thoroughly Paul Ryan’s substantive priorities have triumphed over the president’s.

Here’s the Times executing the first maneuver:

The president’s transformation of the G.O.P. — its policies, its tone, even the fate of its candidates — has never been so evident. A party that once championed free trade has now largely turned to protectionism under Mr. Trump. Sermons about inclusivity have been replaced with demagogic attacks on immigrants and black athletes. A trust-but-verify approach to foreign policy has given way to a seat-of-the-pants style in which rogue regimes like North Korea are elevated and democratic allies like Canada are belittled.

And here’s Politico, doing the same:

Then there’s what’s happening every day. The party of free trade has gone protectionist. The party of spreading freedom and never negotiating with dictators is now full of praise for chumming it up with Kim Jong-un. The party of fighting deficits has blown a trillion dollar hole in the budget.

Donald Trump’s approach to diplomacy and trade is certainly distinct from that of his Republican predecessors. Still, these distinctions are routinely exaggerated: Both George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan enacted trade barriers to protect their favorite domestic industries, while the former’s affronts to our European allies — and contemptuous disregard for international law — were more severe and consequential than Trump’s (even if they were executed with a bit more tact and forethought).

It is true that Trump has dropped his party’s rhetorical support for “spreading freedom” and (rhetorical) opposition to negotiating with “dictators.” But this is a stylistic change, not a substantive one — and it is mind-boggling that a nonpartisan news source would suggest otherwise. Every Republican president has negotiated with dictators (as has every Democratic one). Was Mao Zedong the democratically elected prime minister of China when Richard Nixon paid him a visit (and likened him to George Washington)? Was Ríos Montt a stalwart defender of human rights when Ronald Reagan declared him “a man of great personal integrity and commitment”? Was Crown Prince Abdullah preoccupied with his reelection campaign when George W. Bush praised his “vision for a peaceful and integrated Middle East?”

The notion that the GOP has traditionally prefered “sermons on inclusivity” to “demagogic attacks” requires similar amnesia. Trump’s racist demagoguery is more overt than that of his Republicans predecessors; and his views and administrative policies on immigration are significantly more nativist. But the GOP has been cultivating racial animus for political gain for more than 50 years.

John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s top domestic aide, summarized the spirit of his boss’s 1968 campaign in his memoir as, “We’ll go after the racists,” going on to explain, “The subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.” Reagan, for his part, launched his presidential campaign by extolling the virtues of “states’ rights” in Neshoba County, Mississippi — a place where that phrase was synonymous with the defense of white supremacy, and where the defenders of white supremacy had infamously lynched three civil-rights activists. In 1988, George H.W. Bush’s campaign worked tirelessly to portray Michael Dukakis as soft on black criminality — or, as Bush’s campaign manager Lee Atwater put it, to “make Willie Horton his running mate.”

In 2012, Mitt Romney vowed to make life so miserable for “illegals” in the United States, millions of them would chose “self-deportation” over suffering through another day in the land of the free. He then traveled to Las Vegas to secure the endorsement of a racist conspiracy theorist.

Finally, the patron saint of “the party of fighting deficits,” Ronald Reagan, presided over a 218 percent increase in the national debt; George H.W. Bush, a 55 percent increase; his son, an 85 percent one. For Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, those figures were 37 and 34 percent, respectively. Of course, congressional behavior and the business cycle played a role in these outcomes. But the fact remains: Trump’s decision to prioritize deficit-financed tax cuts for the rich — and a large increase in military spending — over fiscal responsibility makes him a typical Republican president, not an anomalous one.

None of this is to deny that Trump has departed from his party’s conventional politics and policies in some significant (and lamentable) ways. In addition to being more explicit, Trump’s demagogic racial appeals are more relentless and inflammatory than those deployed by previous GOP presidents. And while there have been nativist Republicans in Congress for decades, the party’s presidents have traditionally championed immigration as a source of national renewal, rather than decline.

Further, before Trump’s nomination, the GOP was moving steadily in the direction of criminal justice reform; after his election, Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department has moved the needle back toward draconian, “tough on crime” policies. And the lawless belligerence with which Trump has approached trade protectionism has no modern precedent.

But the true measure of whether the president has transformed his party is not the tenor or substance of the White House’s actions, but those of his party in Congress. If Trump can only defy GOP orthodoxies through executive actions — as opposed to legislative ones — then his ideological innovations are bound to be limited, and likely, ephemeral.

And to this point, conventional Republicans in Congress have refused to defer to Trump on any major issue. The congressional GOP has not become “largely protectionist.” It didn’t enact Trump’s steel tariffs through legislation, but simply declined to restrict a Republican president’s executive authority — which is less a mark of ideological change than one of procedural consistency. On Trump’s signature issue of immigration, meanwhile, congressional Republicans have refused to fall in line. In February, the Senate voted on four separate pieces of immigration legislation; the White House’s bill — which had been the focal point of the president’s State of the Union address — received the fewest votes. Only 38 Republican senators were willing to support Trump’s proposal to slash legal immigration. The House will vote on a similar bill next week; it is expected to fail.

By contrast, Trump has rallied behind all of the congressional GOP’s legislative priorities. On the road to the Republican nomination, the mogul had championed a $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus, universal health care, price controls on pharmaceuticals, maintaining Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security at their current funding levels, and raising taxes on hedge-fund managers. As president, he allowed Congress to ignore his infrastructure ambitions, and loudly endorsed Paul Ryan’s plans for slashing Medicaid, throwing millions of people off of health insurance, and cutting taxes for wealthy investors of all kinds.

To a certain degree, the extinction of the anti-Trump Republican has been driven by the disappearance of the anti-conservative Trump. Were the entire “small government” donor class aligned against the president, it’s likely that more of his critics would have survived this primary season. But Trump has delivered buckets of “lib tears” to the GOP base, and billions of dollars in tax cuts to GOP donors. It shouldn’t be surprising that there isn’t any significant constituency for intraparty dissent.

Now, it is quite possible that Trump will start bending congressional Republicans to his will in the near future. The sorry fate of his critics in this year’s primaries — combined with a wave of moderate Republican retirements — could conceivably produce a GOP House and Senate that is ready and willing to cut legal immigration in half, build a wall, or take whatever other restrictionist position Trump demands.

For now, though, Donald Trump’s GOP remains indistinguishable from Paul Ryan’s. Those who claim otherwise have either a distorted memory of the party’s past, or a myopic view of its present — or both.

Trump Has Not Transformed the Republican Party — Yet