Has Trump Changed the Republican Party?

By Cariad Ingles

During the US election campaign of 2016, observers right across the political spectrum often repeated the same thing: Donald Trump’s candidacy was a direct challenge to the Republican Party’s ideological orthodoxy. In fact, he was even described as an ‘insurgent populist’, who was running on a policy platform that “cuts across party lines, and is anathema to movement conservatives”. It is clear that Trump’s very own brand of politics, even prior to winning the presidency, was viewed upon as less than compatible with Conservative principles and true Republican heritage.

As Trump’s presidency is so unusual to presidencies of the past, the media has exaggerated its distance from ordinary Conservative positions. Like Republican candidates before him, he primarily relies on symbolic rhetoric rather than actual policy specifics. His campaign, and now his presidency, is built upon accusing the Democrats of being weak – weak on national security, weak on immigration, weak in general – in addition to frequently accusing the mainstream news media of bias against him.

It’s fairly common knowledge now that Trump’s signature issue is immigration, and yet, on this he even stands further to the right than other Republicans. His nativist rhetoric and denouncing of international institutions re-engaged the American right’s affinity for nationalist traditions, and ever so comfortably aligned the Republicans with a global trend among far-right parties. It would not be crazy to call Trump a ‘Rogue Republican’, more of an independent president than a party leader, putting considerable distance between himself and the Republicans in Congress – most notably evident in his public interactions with leaders such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. He has blamed them for legislative failures like the Obamacare repeal, and for having to sign in tougher law sanctions on Russia backed by the GOP.

These words and actions are increasingly frustrating to fellow Republicans, and making the daunting prospect of the 2018 midterm elections even more worrying. Part of this is his encouragement of primary challenger to Arizona’s Republican senator Jeff Flake, not to mention his praise for North Dakota’s Democratic senator, Heidi Heitkamp – a ‘good woman’, according to Trump – high praise indeed. Trump’s occasional failure to remember which side he’s on is doing nothing to improve the image of what already appears to be a Republican Party at odds.

In terms of bread and butter, conventionally Republican positions, particularly free trade and entitlements, the Trump presidency has deviated again from these long-held views. However, it could be argued that so too did previous Conservative populists, such as Pat Buchanan. It could be further argued that perhaps Trump isn’t changing the Republican Party, and that he’s taking it back into firmly Conservative – even far-right – territory.

Republican voters have very much cherry-picked from the Trump agenda, concentrating solely on the parts that they like (military spending increases, deterrence abroad, tax and regulatory reform), and they choose to ignore the inherent contradictions between Trump’s ideology and the ideology of the party they have aligned themselves with. It may well be contentious to say, but I’ll say it: Trump’s ability to notice that the Republican Party is malleable enough for him to mould as he sees fit, with the knowledge that his voters will blindly follow, is something to begrudgingly commend him for.

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