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Thomas Gallatin / Aug. 24, 2020

How Trump Has Transformed the GOP

He's the means by which working-class Americans are changing the party's priorities.

Democrats, in their effort to defeat President Donald Trump in November, have enlisted a slew of Never-Trump Republicans to declare their support for Joe Biden because Trump is supposedly the greatest threat to American democracy. The charge is as ridiculous as the claim that Joe Biden’s extreme hard-left platform is somehow moderate.

What are these Never-Trump “Republicans” really fighting against? While many point to Trump’s character flaws and repeated acrimonious use of social media — which does indeed cause many to roll their eyes in frustration over behavior viewed as beneath the dignity of the office — the deeper answer lies in the fact that Trump’s presidency is having a transformative impact on the Republican Party. Trump is not a Ronald Reagan conservative. Instead, he’s a national populist whose America First message sometimes directly counters the long-held free-market ideals the GOP has long espoused. That said, what Trump and Reagan have in common is a deep connection to working-class Americans.

Trump won the 2016 election in large part because he listened to and became the voice of a middle America that had grown tired of being ignored by the establishment class in Washington. Trump’s willingness to challenge the status quo of the GOP (that and an overly crowded field) gained him the nomination, and in the general election his populist appeal to causes a majority of working-class Americans have long complained about — such as illegal immigration, job losses due to unfair trade practices, and burdensome regulations — proved to win the day. He served as a wrecking ball to the establishment’s agenda.

And yet Trump’s lasting impact will be much more than merely knocking down various establishment shibboleths. He is establishing a new identity for the Republican Party. And it is this issue that most dismays today’s Never-Trumpers. The Wall Street Journal editorial board observes, “There is simply no way to put Trumpism back into the bottle. If the president wins this fall (and even more so if he loses), the question that Republicans in general and conservatives in particular face is simple and stark: How to adapt their gospel so that it fits in the age of Trump?”

One gleaming example of Trump’s departure from GOP orthodoxy is seen in his foreign policy. Trump is no neocon hawk. He has actively and repeatedly challenged the status quo, calling out and pressuring NATO allies for failing to meet their defense-spending obligations. He’s sought to pull the U.S. out of long wars in the Middle East, and he’s met directly with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. He’s taken on China over its abusive trade practices and focused trade policy in general (especially reworking NAFTA) more on protecting American workers jobs than ensuring free trade.

As former Republican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal cogently notes, “Mr. Trump also made the popular promise to not cut Medicare or Social Security, and he has shown less interest than traditional Republicans in restraining the size of government. Yet Mr. Trump has also promoted several traditional Republican policies that will continue to define the party. He has reduced taxes and eased regulations, increased military spending, promoted the domestic energy industry, supported Israel, appointed originalist and textualist judges, and defended religious liberty, gun rights and the unborn.”

A final observation: Trump is not primarily what is causing this transformation of the Republican Party, though he serves as the instrument for the change. It is the party’s base — those middle-class American workers and voters who sent the message to Washington — that is driving the change. Therefore, for the establishment Never-Trumpers to blame this transformation on Trump is for them to even further reject American working-class voters. Trump is president because he was willing to listen to those voters and seriously take up their cause. Should this not be the goal of a political party?

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