It will be a while before Republicans truly come to grips with a Trump-dominated party. So far leaders are trying to view his upcoming nomination in the old manner, still convinced he can fit a recognizably Republican mold. RNC Chairman Priebus is bravely trying to unite the party behind him, while House Speaker Ryan, not yet ready to embrace Trump, still thinks there is hope of making him ideologically and stylistically acceptable. Trump, however, has already changed the old GOP beyond recognition.
Indeed, on the level of rhetoric and substance, Trump has radically altered what is now talked about on the right. Only a few months ago it was liberty, small government, low taxes, free trade, and the Constitution. Now it is illegal immigration, Islam, unfair trade agreements, and political correctness. Before, it was conservative principles and how best to implement them. Now it is big-stick nationalism and strong-man threats.
Demographically, Trump has fastened upon a receptive audience for his message: disgruntled white voters. Many of them are male, working class, and economically struggling. Such voters, typically those who have voted Republican in the past because they saw nowhere else to go, seem to care little about conservative ideology. They respond to Trump because he talks their language, feels their anger, and offers quick solutions to their present frustrations.
Trump, of course, did not arise out of vacuum. His right-wing populist approach to politics follows years of extremism in the GOP. Fox News, the Tea Party, radio talk-show hosts all laid the ground for Trump. The targeting of enemies, the no-compromise posture, the vicious rhetoric, the conspiracy thinking all foreshadowed his candidacy. What Trump did was to bring nativism and racial resentment out into the open, to replace ideology with id.
By steering the party in a populist direction, Trump has upset all the familiar alignments within the party. The old dualities of establishment/anti-establishment and purity/pragmatism are no longer so consequential. Establishmentarians and tea partiers must now make personal decisions about how they will adjust themselves to the new reality. The litmus test is how one relates to Trump and his leadership style.
The emerging alliances seem bizarre at best. Thus in the current pro-Trump camp, Tea Party icon Sarah Palin and right-wing brawlers Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Ann Coulter find themselves in league with so-called establishment pragmatists Chris Christy, Rudy Giuliani, and Bob Dole. In the anti-Trump camp, ideologues like Glenn Beck and the National Review crowd are now bedfellows with conventional pols like Romney and the Bushes.
Such alliances, of course, are more motivated by short-term political considerations than by steadfast commitments. There is little certainty about what will follow the November election, when Trump either takes over the Republican Party apparatus in triumph or leaves it in shambles in defeat.
But one thing is fairly certain: there will be no going back to the old Republican Party. There will surely continue to be something like an establishment wing associated with traditional pols and presidential types. And the conservative ideologues, who have long represented the activist wing of the party and control Congress and the red state legislatures, will make their voices heard. But these groups must take heed of and make room for a new potent force, call it the “vox populi” or populist element of the party, which has been awakened from its sullen torpor. Its avid supporters have had a chance to discover their muscle and find a place under a new Republican dispensation. These volatile voters can be expected to cause the party major heartburn for the foreseeable future.