Republicans now falling into line behind president-elect
By reshaping the electoral landscape, Donald Trump has also refashioned his party
A crowd marches from New York’s Union Square to Trump Tower in protest over Donald Trump’s election. Photograph: Yana Paskova/Getty Images
In early 2013, when senior figures in the Republican Party kicked over the embers of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign to see what insights could be salvaged from the smouldering wreckage of a second successive election defeat, they settled on a simple conclusion.
The party was out of touch with a changing electorate. Through its dismissal of minority concerns, intolerance of gays and veneration of wealth, the party of Ronald Reagan had narrowed its appeal and allowed the Democrats to assemble a solid winning coalition.
Those findings were reflected in an official report by the Republican National Committee (RNC) within months of Romney’s defeat. The postmortem found the party’s hard line on immigration was turning the fast-growing Latino community against it.
“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States. they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” it concluded.
But the problem went beyond Hispanics. Republicans were also making themselves irrelevant to black voters and Asian-Americans. And it was falling victim to “epistemic closure”, a condition in which conservatives, by speaking only to themselves and blocking out dissenting views, began to sound incomprehensible to everyone else.
“The RNC cannot and will not write off any demographic or community or region of this country,” its chair, Reince Priebus, said at the time. Four years on from Romney’s defeat, Donald Trump has won the White House with a strategy that spectacularly upended the conventional wisdom on how the Republicans could win elections.
Winning two million fewer votes than Romney, and benefiting from a lower Democratic turnout than in 2012, he assembled a winning coalition rooted in a populist, angry appeal to white voters, in particular those without a college degree.
Refashioned his party
By reshaping the electoral landscape, Trump has also refashioned his party. With his victory, the ethno-nationalist fringe of the party has become its centre of gravity, forcing the long-ascendant conservative establishment to adapt to a new reality.
With the Republicans now in control of the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time since 1928, the extent to which that establishment reconciles itself with Trumpism – or the other way around – will have a major bearing on the course of American life in the coming years. Already, senior figures in the party are falling into line.
At an awkward appearance with Trump on Capitol Hill on Thursday, House speaker Paul Ryan pledged to work with the president-elect to “make America great again”, echoing his campaign slogan.
On some issues the two men, and the arms of modern conservatism they represent, will find common ground. Trump can expect his nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court to be approved without delay.
Few Republicans are likely to stand in the way of his dismantling of Obamacare, even if he disappoints supporters by “amending” the Affordable Care Act (as he suggested at the weekend) rather than “repealing” it.
Similarly, early moves on tax cuts and investment in conventional energy projects will likely win broad Republican support.
Unless Trump performs dramatic about-turns, ideas long cherished by republicans – free trade, welfare reform, a hawkish posture towards Russia – will all be on the scrapheap.
Yet it’s unlikely the relationship will be frictionless. Tensions could arise over the Mexican border wall, which was greeted with widespread scepticism and would come with a price tag that would make any legislature baulk.
Trump’s wish for massive infrastructure spending is unpopular with many Republicans, and indeed Newt Gingrich, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, identified this as one of the issues on which Trump will court Democratic support. “It’s very important that Trump try to have as many Democrats as possible to help him do this,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation yesterday.
Sense an opportunity
As the rush to embrace a victorious Trump suggests, his sceptics in the Republican Party sense an opportunity to help shape his presidency. The president-elect’s policy contradictions, his inexperience, his unpredictability and lack of ideological coherence make him something of a blank page. Those who have his ear may well have more influence over the next four years than any presidential entourage of the past half-century.
A question preoccupying the party at the weekend was the identity of Trump’s chief of staff - one of the most important figures in any administration. The two favourites – Priebus, the RNC chair and Washington insider; and Steve Bannon, the alt-right provocateur - represented two competing visions of the party Trump has led to victory.
Bannon would have delighted the populist-nationalists. But having Priebus installed at a desk adjacent to the Oval Office will give Ryan and his allies on the Hill hope that, on some issues at least, the president-elect can be brought around to the conventional conservative agenda.