The Republican National Convention begins Monday, with the future of the GOP, conservatism and the two-party political system as much on the line as the presidency.
At the heart of the uncertainty is the extraordinary candidacy of Donald Trump. The country’s never seen anything like it, and polls show he has a puncher’s chance at the presidency.
Only a year ago, the consensus was that the billionaire businessman could not beat the top-tier GOP candidates. But Trump soundly vanquished legitimate hopefuls from every faction of the party.
The unpredictability and fresh energy of the Trump movement have combined with the deep distaste many voters have for Democrat Hillary Clinton and the establishment politics of both parties to make the once unthinkable possible.
Yet the Trump candidacy is presenting a deeper question than who will win the White House. Trump has exposed the party itself as a ship that’s been rudderless and floating in the wrong direction. If he wins, is it his party? And what would that look like? And if he loses, will that mean the establishment gets the GOP back, or that there is no GOP to get back?
Trump’s choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate frames the gravitational pulls. Pence is a traditional conservative much like Ted Cruz, whom he endorsed in the primaries, or Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum and John Kasich. By picking Pence, Trump signaled a willingness to work with party elders — the same party elders Trump’s voters are rejecting.
Last week, Republicans put together a proposed party platform that ignores much of its 2012 beating. An autopsy that the Republican National Committee performed after that loss examined the changing demographics and views of the nation and the beliefs of its top candidate. With the exception of adding a promise to build a wall that must cover the “entirety of the Southern Border and must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic” to the 2016 platform, party officials said Trump did not wield influence on the planks.
So the New Yorker who has generally been a social liberal will helm a party that maintains firm opposition to same-sex marriage and transgender rights in a country where polls show a majority of people favor gay marriage and think people should use whatever bathroom they choose.
Young people, in particular, are generally liberal on these topics, and that’s one group the GOP’s 2012 recap said the party had to woo. The other group the party said then it needed is Hispanics. But many of them will be infuriated by the highlighting of the wall in the platform, and by the party’s retreat from the promise for comprehensive immigration reform that was a highlight of the 2012 GOP platform.
There are other areas in which the platform moves toward Trump and his followers. It acknowledges the fact that trade agreements have undercut U.S. jobs and created huge, unacceptable trade deficits, and that’s a shift. But it’s a shift that will alienate bedrock Republican organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, its big-business members and free-trade ideological conservatives. The platform also incorporates Trump’s criticism of military interventionism and attempts to impose American-style democracy and values on other nations, views in direct opposition to those of the neocons who have dominated foreign policy among the Republicans since 9/11.
So where the platform has followed Trump, it departs from set party values. And where it has followed tradition, it has acted as if Trump, his voters and a changing society don’t exist.
In the past four decades, the GOP became a coalition of political camps banded together to defeat the Democrats. Evangelical voters and states-rights Southerners were able to get along well enough with low-tax social-program cutters, deficit haters, free-trade corporate types, military hawks and libertarians. But that coalition has fallen apart amid the wasted money and casualties of Iraq, automation, globalization, growing income inequality and young voters increasingly open about sex, gender and race.
GOP leaders such as Cruz, Rubio and Speaker Paul Ryan, who believe the future of conservatism lays in rebuilding the old coalition, are way off base. Trump is both politically wrong and morally reprehensible in his xenophobia and race baiting. But he is spot on in his understanding that working-class whites know they need a social safety net, don’t want their kids dying in the Middle East and no longer trust big business to safeguard their interests.
The world has become far more complicated. It may be that two parties aren’t enough. Certainly, this year’s supporters of Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders felt, at times, like two distinct political entities. And Republicans have often felt like at least six. Great political upheaval often follows great economic disruption. After 2016, we might see changes in how we define parties and even governing coalitions.
We might have some answers about the future of the GOP and Trump’s role in it by late Thursday, when the convention ends. Others might not come until ballots are tallied in November. And most likely, it will be up to historians to decipher the significance of the 2016 presidential campaign.