We don’t know yet if Donald Trump—shocking most observers—somehow will win the Republican presidential nomination. But it’s not too early to speculate how he might change the GOP. Trump does not have much history as a Republican, and he differs with many stands of the party. As the party’s nominee, Trump will be able to define the GOP for millions of voters and for thousands of activists. How would he use that power?
Will immigration become a “litmus issue” within the GOP?
No issue defines Donald Trump supporters more than immigration. Ramesh Ponnuru argues that the Trump campaign may make immigration control a defining position for the Republican Party, breaking with the heritage of Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and other leading conservatives. Traditionally, immigration has been an ill-defined issue within the GOP. The business wing of the GOP has been friendly to immigration reform, while many of its voters are much more hostile. Several GOP presidential nominees—including Reagan, the Bushes, and John McCain—have been soft-liners on immigration—but Mitt Romney was not, and congressional Republicans have been cool to anything that smacks of “amnesty.” There’s no immigration-restrictionist equivalent to the National Rifle Association—no large, mainstream organization that speaks for its constituency and which conventional Republican politicians feel comfortable courting. Instead, the issue has been left to talk-radio provocateurs and to some relatively small organizations with extremist ties.
Immigration has become an increasingly fraught issue within the GOP over the past few years: it was the rare matter where George W. Bush clashed with the GOP base, while numerous presidential candidates (McCain, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio, to name a few) have found their support for immigration reform damaging their prospects. As Ponnuru points out, abortion once was an issue where Republicans “felt free to disagree.” But now opposition to abortion rights has become central to the Republican Party. Similarly, will Trump’s legacy be the end of GOP support for immigration reform? Even he is defeated in November, Republican candidates may learn the lesson that support for a “path to citizenship” means a path to certain defeat in a primary.
Will future GOP presidents feel pressure to be anti-Muslim?
No American president has embraced hostility to Islam. During the Cold War, Muslims were often valuable allies against “atheistic Communism.” In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush was always careful to avoid anti-Muslim rhetoric. But nonetheless Republican voters have become increasingly anti-Muslim in recent years. Donald Trump has exploited this opening, which overlaps nicely with his anti-immigration rhetoric and his birtherism. Even if Trump is not the nominee, it’s conceivable that the Republican platform could include anti-Muslim rhetoric. Would a future Republican president feel compelled to denounce “radical Islam” while in office?
What happens to the conservative intelligentsia?
Probably no part of the Republican coalition is more firmly opposed to Trump than are conservative intellectuals. Think-tank eggheads, op-ed columnists, National Review, The Weekly Standard are all united in their disdain. If some parts of the GOP show signs of accepting Trump, its intellectual foot soldiers have shown no willingness to back down. Not only is Trump exceptionally anti-intellectual in his style, his positions lack appeal to any faction of the GOP’s policy elite, whether it be neoconservative, libertarian, or traditionalist. Many of his loudest supporters—Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin—are exactly the figures that most embarrass Republican policy wonks. Will they find a place in a party defined by Trump?
Will the GOP become economically populist?
Since its origins, the Republican Party has been close to the business community, and has usually emphasized the common interests of capital and labor. In recent presidential contests, Pat Buchanan and Mike Huckabee have toyed with economic populism, while the Chamber of Commerce has bemoaned the tactics of some congressional Republicans, but the GOP has only become more economically conservative. By contrast, Donald Trump has used populist language to denounce Wall Street, and bemoaned the economic pressures on working-class Americans. He doesn’t share the market-oriented views of the Club for Growth, instead praising “crony capitalism” and calling for trade restrictions against China. Unlike much of the GOP’s policy elite, Trump has no use for entitlement reform, denouncing “welfare” but defending “earned” benefits like Social Security and Medicare. Trump’s views may not be popular among Wall Streeters or free-market economists, but they resonate among blue-collar Republicans. Should he become the nominee, how will the business community react? Will elected Republicans start aligning themselves with Trump’s populism?