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Trump was supposed to change the GOP. But the GOP changed him.

How the Republican Party turned Donald Trump into one of their own.

President Trump waves a fist to the camera on the first day of the Republican National Convention.
David T. Foster III/Getty Images

The Republican National Convention is normally an event to showcase what the party is: the policy platform it stands on, the values it supports. Not this year. No, this year the convention was about President Donald Trump and his own ambitions, the culmination of a five-year creep from Trump the populist to Trump the Republican.

“From the moment I left my former life behind, and a good life it was, I have done nothing but fight for you,” he said in a lengthy nomination acceptance speech that made mention of 401Ks and “record stock markets.”

Five years ago, Trump launched a populist campaign, seemingly bucking the idea that the GOP is the “Party of No.” Trump wasn’t running as a conservative, a fact that led to much condemnation from conservative corners during his march to the nomination in 2016. But it turned out that Republican voters didn’t care. They liked his philosophy of “Yes.” They were fired up to hear that he would build a wall, he would provide health care to everyone, he alone could — and would — fix America.

Since then, we’ve learned that Trump’s rejection of conservatism on the trail and call for action didn’t represent a true zeal for populism, or policy at all. Trump didn’t deliver on his big promises — his administration has left more people uninsured than under President Barack Obama and there’s still no wall. The most glaring example: the GOP’s decision to push off deciding on a new platform until 2024, rather than this week at the convention. As National Review put it in an editorial, “the campaign statement appears to suggest that the platform is Trump himself.”

Delegates and RNC staff listen as President Trump speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention.
Travis Dove/Pool/Getty Images

Trump is not enthusiastic about implementing popular policies, or really thinking or engaging on policy at all. Even when his administration has implemented policy, he has seemed confused, checked out, or even at odds with his own administration’s positions or actions — including on a massive tax cut package, agency-level deregulation, installation of judges, and the response to Covid-19.

Trump, it turns out, is extremely enthusiastic about Trump and other people who are enthusiastic about him, regardless of whether they are hardline conservatives or conspiracy theorists, rather than Republicans in line with his populist rhetoric. He is extremely enthusiastic about attacking those who are not enthusiastic about Trump. The result is that Trump functions as an opposition leader, defining himself and the Republican Party not by a set of policies but by their opposition to those who oppose Trump. Meaning, most importantly, the left.

The limits of “No”

National Review founder William F. Buckley wrote in the magazine’s mission statement in 1955 that the point of the National Review — and, I’d argue, conservatism — is to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Or, as the 18th-century conservative thinker Edmund Burke put it in 1756, “The great error of our nature is not to know where to stop.” While progressives want to do things — make progress, hence the term “progressive” — conservatives want to conserve things as they are, or ideally, as they once were. If progressives are doers, conservatives want to stop them from doing.

The GOP is indeed a governing party, said Steven Teles, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and senior fellow at the market-oriented think tank Niskanen Center. But, he says, it is one that has traditionally focused on its core organized constituencies — business conservatives and social conservatives — not necessarily on working-class voters.

“Its core business constituencies want tax cuts and deregulation, and Republicans have in fact passed tax cuts and done a lot of administrative deregulation,” Teles said. “Both business and social conservatives want major changes to the courts, and the Republican Party has been very effective at actually nominating judges and pushing them through the Senate.”

“You may dislike that mode of governance, but in many ways the Republican Party is governing now fairly effectively, in the sense that it has gotten used to governing in the last few decades.”

But this mode of governance isn’t based on setting policies. It’s based on curtailing them.

However, while conservatives at the highest echelons of the party might embrace the spirit of opposition, Republican voters did not. While Republican politicians and think tanks rejected government-provided health care, Republican voters didn’t. In the view of Trump-supportive conservatives, top conservative thinkers spent a great deal of energy making arguments on behalf of a form of conservatism that only appealed to other top conservative thinkers. And to them, Trump alone could see it.

“The most stunning piece of information Trump supplied was not his defeat of Hillary, a possible one-off,” said Andrew Klavan, a conservative novelist and podcaster at the conservative website Daily Wire. “It was Trump’s easy defeat of 16 other Republican candidates, ranging from [John] Kasich to [Sen. Ted] Cruz. Clearly, the GOP was not listening. They really thought Jeb had it locked up.”

Tim Carney, a conservative writer at the Washington Examiner, agreed, saying, “Trump saw that the market opportunity was in populism,” and adding, “The working-class white voter was low-hanging fruit in 2016 because Democratic and Republican establishments ignored them.”

“Those voters need government to actually do things for them”

Even before the pandemic, there was comparatively little Republican voter support for cutting federal spending on health care and education. Before “Infrastructure Week” became a long-running joke, it was a Trump campaign promise, one with high levels of support from Republican voters. And that hasn’t changed — according to Fox News polling conducted earlier this month, 57 percent of Americans want more assistance from the federal government, not less.

Teles told me, “The problem is that the Republican Party’s actual voters — as well as those they aspire to attract — have shifted in a working-class direction. And those voters need government to actually do things for them. They need something like a coherent program for driving economic growth, they need new systems of social insurance, and they need a functioning public health system that would allow them to go to work. All of that requires a kind of planning and implementation capacity, and a relationship between a large base of technical expertise and networks of officials across government to drive change, that does not exist.”

RNC internal documents obtained by the Washington Examiner and released this week show that the GOP is well aware of its voters’ discontent. As detailed by writer Joseph Simonson, voters who switched from Obama to Trump in the Rust Belt “favor stronger social safety nets and hawkishness on trade, rather than typical GOP orthodoxies such as lower tax rates and an easier regulatory environment for businesses. That is not to say these voters oppose those things, but the rhetorical obsession from GOP donors and members of the party do little to excite one-time Trump voters.”

But Klavan added the specific populism of Trump was largely a creation of others. “Trump is a gut politician. He perceives himself as a guy who fixes things when they’re broken. He said as much at the first National Prayer Breakfast after his election. Insofar as he has a philosophy, it is largely supplied by observers assembling his instinctive actions into a coherent intellectual whole.”

That “coherent intellectual whole,” however, was a projection. Conservative radio host and writer Erick Erickson agreed with Klavan that the Trump team had attempted to form his ideas into a concrete ideology of sorts, but said, “Those who would direct and help shape him cannot agree.” He added, “The result is word salad ideology.”

Trump is the new metric of conservatism — a conservatism based on “not being the left”

Geoffrey Kabaservice, director of political studies at the Niskanen Center, told me it was true that “the GOP by 2016 had run out of ideas that went any deeper than zombie Reaganism plus slightly chastened neoconservatism, and this void did seem to have been noticed by disgruntled Republican voters and Donald Trump.”

But rather than replace “zombie Reaganism” with a genuine populist effort — a real Infrastructure Week, for one — Trump, even with total control of Congress, demurred. It was too hard to get social conservatives, free-market libertarian conservatives, budget hawks, and foreign policy doves on board with the same domestic policies. Instead, he passed a deeply unpopular tax cut and yelled at people on Twitter. And in 2020, he’s focusing on “suburban housewives” and a capital gains tax cut that would likely benefit the wealthiest Americans. As Carney told me, “The shift from courting ex-factory workers to courting suburban housewives is notable, and it’s revealing. Donald Trump is a performer and a salesman.”

Kabaservice told me, “Trump’s populist message that Americans are #winning represents a kind of effort to compensate for the unpopularity of the conservative Republican program. Maybe his approval rating would have risen well above the mid-40s if he had pursued a more genuinely populist program.”

And rather than herald the entrance of a new class of populist leaders into the Republican Party, Trump’s victory has ushered a host of candidates into the GOP who share one important characteristic: They like him, and so he likes them — whether or not they support conspiracy theories that argue actors and actresses are taking part in pedophilic cannibal rituals or that reflect school shooting trutherism.

And so four years on, we’ve returned to the Party of No, not just to liberal policies but to the idea of liberalism itself. Donald Trump might not have launched a populist project, but now he serves a critical purpose: a bulwark against the left. In 2020, the opposition party is not the one out of power, but the one desperately holding onto it. As Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote in National Review this week, “The one thing [the GOP] can do, beyond passing tax cuts, is deprive progressives of unified control of government and civil society.”

An opposition party that holds the White House and the Senate

Rather than serve as a source of new ideas himself, Trump now serves as a dam of sorts, holding back progressivism. As Carney told me, “the idea that ‘they’re coming after us, but Trump is in the way,’ resonates with the standard working-class voter and with the religious conservative. Is it prudent in the long run to attach ourselves to such a man? I don’t think so. But in the short run, he does function, like Constantine, as a protector of a minority hated by the elites.”

This mirrors what I heard during the impeachment hearings from social conservatives like writer Rod Dreher:

The idea that Trump is a bulwark against the excesses of the left, or, as Dreher told me, a “kind of katechon — a force that holds back something much worse,” is a common sentiment among conservative voters, if not among elected members of the Republican Party. While Trump might be, in their view, uncouth, unfair, even immoral and a hindrance to the growth of the conservative movement, they view the left as the real threat, a threat only Trump has seemed able to stand up against.

And to many Trump-supportive conservatives, the impulse to fight on Trump’s behalf against his critics on the left and in the media is intimately tied to their own sense that they themselves are constantly targeted in unfair ways by those same forces.

As conservative writer Ben Shapiro told me in 2018, serving as an opposition party is easier than creating coalition-wide agreement. “This is one of the hazards of a coalition built on being anti-left,” he said. “As opposed to agreeing on central principles, there is still massive disagreement on what you actually do with the car once you [catch it].”

In a New York Times op-ed on August 22, Ross Douthat wrote that the future of the GOP could be one in which Republicans exist purely as not-liberals. “The lesson that Republicans might take from the Trump era is that so long as much of the country fears a liberalism that’s increasingly beholden to the left, Republicans can win their share of elections just on the promise to not be Democrats, to hold off liberal hegemony ‘simply by existing.’”

New polling indicates Republican voters might feel the same: Even if Trump wins, his efforts should center not on furthering conservatism but on stopping Democrats.

And writer Kurt Schlichter argued candidates like Laura Loomer might do the same, essentially stating that while Loomer might not be ideal, she’s not a Democrat.

The Trumpification of the Republican Party was not the remaking of the Republican Party into a populist outfit. Instead, it was the reshaping of Trump into a mainline Republican, one who values the “beautiful boaters” over working-class voters whose politics were more heterodox than any observer realized back in 2016. The desire for populism he observed was real, but he didn’t believe in it. As one conservative pundit told me, while he exploited a vacuum in conservative thought, “what’s so sad is that he never fulfilled or developed it.”

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