Why you should care
Because this is how the Republican Party is getting dismantled … and rebuilt with the face of Trump.
In this special election series, OZY looks closely at how Donald J. Trump is reshaping the Republican Party. Later this week, we’ll explore what the world might look like as the billionaire continues his march to the GOP nomination and, perhaps, the Oval Office.
All eyes are on the man of the hour. Hundreds, thousands — no, millions — of them, if you count the cameras (which of course he does). With each pugnacious point, Donald J. Trump raises a hand like a conductor and then lowers it. An accompanying verbal jab falls like a tomahawk. His now all-too-familiar chorus — “we,” “us,” “them” — plays again and again, entrancing crowds, whether they’re cramped in a tiny town hall in Londonderry, New Hampshire, or filled in a football stadium with tens of thousands in Mobile, Alabama.
As OZY has chased the Republican front-runner across New England, America’s heartland and through the South on the eve of Super Tuesday, we’ve seen the many facets of Trump: raw, demagogic, blustery and, to put it mildly, irreverent. Meanwhile, we’ve watched him grab the political mirror and swing it back on the Republican Party, casting its deficits into sharp relief and revealing a new path forward. Trump’s GOP focuses on deals over ideals, on the candidate himself over any dogma. His platform, such as it is, is flexible enough to allow independents and disgruntled Democrats, too. “We’re building a much bigger, much stronger Republican party,” he said at the GOP debate in Houston last week, citing his support among non-GOP voters.
Indeed, despite howls from the Republican establishment, the 69-year-old billionaire has over the past eight months done much more than disable a party that was already split from the inside and seemingly behind the times: Arguably, Trump has begun to reassemble a party made in his own image. “He’s beloved by tens of millions of people who, no matter what he says, still love him,” says Surya Yalamanchili, a politician and marketing expert who spent months with Trump on the set of The Apprentice and is the author of Decoding the Donald: Trump’s Apprenticeship in Politics.
Of course those loyal adherents are causing the rest of the Republican Party a fit, as it seems to get reshaped from the inside out. Often lower-class, white and disillusioned — and “poorly educated,” as the Donald himself has said — this under-served population sees itself in Trump, who, despite being an opulent billionaire, has won them over. Even more crucially, he’s shown a willingness to confront the challenges blue-collar America faces in a global economy that has all but left them behind. It’s a demographic that tends to care less about cultural issues, which have long dominated modern conservatism. “I don’t give a shit if he’s Christian or not,” says 22-year-old Aaron McBryer, a Scottsboro, Alabama, native. “For people like me, I’m angry that I don’t have a job — and Trump believes in putting your own people first. It’s like a family.”
The result, experts say, is a coalition of new voters: Election Day turnout in Republican primaries is at an all-time high — not only upending traditional politics, but derailing the party and setting it on a different course. And that’s fallen in line with past, sweeping moments, such as the Reagan revolution. “Historically speaking, the Republican Party has reinvented itself at moments where it is at a crossroads of ideology and constituency,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “Trump,” he adds, “is effectively remaking the ideology and constituency of the Republican Party.”
Here we are, in a Houston ranch bar dubbed Rebels Honky Tonk, where a couple of life-size Native American statues buttress the entrance and cowboys rope cattle on a nearby wall mural near, yes, a mechanical bull. An enthused crowd of conservatives is here to watch the latest GOP debate, an eclectic sort with the kinds of names you’d expect: the Young Republicans, the Liberty Caucus, the Texas Asian Republican Club and half a dozen more. Just down the highway from George Bush Intercontinental Airport, this is definitely an establishment crowd; the one young buck who’s willing to admit he voted early for Trump seems as though he has to apologize for it today. Others are growing increasingly concerned. After all, there’s a lot at stake, and they’re the ones who will inherit the party that Trump builds (or destroys, depending on whom you ask).
As the crowd of a couple hundred quiets, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus comes forward in a surprise appearance and speaks a few words: “My promise to you is that we’ll be much better than we were in 2012, when you were embarrassed by the ground game,” he says. “You have to have a competent national party.” Never mind that Trump has basically spat on Priebus’ 2013 urgings that the GOP embrace minority groups and comprehensive immigration reform. Anyway, Priebus’ pep talk may have backfired. Nearby, a middle-age conservative whispers: “Somebody should go up there and put a ‘Kick me’ sign on his back.”
The Grand Old Party has already received a firm kick to the rear, with Trump, of course, providing the boot. He’s ridden a groundswell of support from unconventional conservatives, which, predictably, has Republican leaders kicking and screaming. “The front-runner is a con man,” Marco Rubio told Fox News’ Bret Baier on Friday, “and he is trying to take over the party of Reagan.” Most political scientists agree that Trump has laid waste to the party. “A movement being created?” Drake University political scientist Anthony Gaughan asks rhetorically. “The only movement is that of the Republican Party’s death spiral.”
But what if the Trump revolution is not just the fracturing of the party, but the reimagining of it? Less Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 nomination led to landslide defeat in the general election, and more like Reagan, who created a bona fide evolution? “Trump is the modern successor of Reagan,” Rottinghaus says. Both men were initially distrusted by leadership, both accused of hijacking new media with television personalities: Reagan, the actor; Trump, the reality TV star. More important, both revolutionaries came when voters felt economically depressed and angry at the system, regardless of ideology. Trump, recognizing this, mimicked Reagan’s 1980 slogan: “Let’s Make America Great Again.” And, just as Reagan did in 1980, Trump is drawing support not just from conservatives but from some frustrated Democrats.
So where does Trump take it all from here? Nativism is his wedge issue, whether it manifests itself in his criticisms of China and Japan, his suggestions of a ban on Muslims or his proposal to shut down the border to certain immigrants. His support isn’t ideologically pure but, rather, obsessed with winning after watching Republicans filibuster and shut down government and, yet, even after gaining a majority, failing to advance their agenda at all. Expect him to charge forward with his agenda but as a deal-maker who could actually get meaningful work done to reverse the widening gap between the rich and poor in America. After all, stagnant parties rarely win elections.
And, so far, Trump is succeeding in his revival. A key moment occurred that famous night when Trump ran rogue with his own event instead of attending the GOP debate in Des Moines, where he managed to get Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum (who were still running for president) to attend his prime-time show. Then came the tossing aside of Jeb!, the $100 million establishment man, and shocking the party last week by winning the endorsement of Chris Christie, who not only chaired the Republican Governors Association but also delivered the keynote speech at the national convention just four years ago. “Brick by brick, he’s dismantling the Republican Party,” Gaughan says. But at the same time, notes Rottinghaus, “There’s been a rebirth at work.”