President Trump has served one-quarter of his term in office. How much longer he will serve is anyone’s guess; it could be three years, it could be five, it could — because of any number of possible outside occurrences — be only one or two.
But the Trump era will end, and a Republican Party that has been subsumed to the president’s personality, temper and raucous base will need to figure out a path forward.
What will that look like? Will it simply slip back into the Republican Party we had under George W. Bush? The one we had when Mitt Romney was the party’s presidential nominee candidate in 2012, when the underlying frictions of class and demography were still just emerging? Or will it look like something new, reshaped by Trump permanently?
We asked five Republicans who’ve been skeptical of Trump’s presidency for their thoughts in in-person interviews and over email. We focused on two questions: Will the Republican Party simply revert to the party we saw a decade ago? If not, what will it look like?
Will the GOP revert to the party of the Bush-Romney era?
“It largely depends on how the Trump Presidency ends,” said former congressman David Jolly (Fla.). “If he is successfully re-elected he will have completed the ideological transformation of the party to one of economic nationalism domestically and a foreign policy rooted in global isolationism.”
However, Jolly added, “if his Presidency ends in scandal or disgrace, traditional conservatives should be able to regain control of the party, but the Republican coalition may be so strained it will be several cycles to regain a governing majority.”
Stuart Stevens, a strategist for the Bush 2000 and Romney 2012 campaigns, suggested that a return to that GOP wasn’t “good enough.”
“All the points made in the so called ‘autopsy’ ” — the post-2012 analysis by the Republican Party meant to figure out how Romney lost — “were correct: the party had to attract more non-white voters,” Stevens said. “Trump took the party in an entirely different direction and, even though he lost by three million, his electoral college win is understandably seen by some as proof that the party can win if it just deepens its appeal to more white voters.
“To me this is like having a few drinks at a party, driving home without a wreck and concluding that alcohol improves your driving. Unless white people can figure out to stop dying, white voters are going to be a decreasing share of electorate,” he continued, noting that Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in 1984 was with 56 percent of the white vote, while Trump lost the popular vote with 63 percent of that demographic.
“I look out at the success of the Republican Party at the moment and have this image of Wang Word Processing in 1980,” Stevens said. “Without the ability to appeal to more non-white voters, the party will shrink. That’s a political reality but I also think it’s a moral mandate that to govern, a party must appeal to all Americans.”
Evan McMullin, whose opposition to Trump resulted in an independent presidential bid in 2016, agreed with Stevens that reverting to the GOP of a decade ago wouldn’t work.
“It would be a mistake for us to try to just get back to what we were in the past. Times are changing. There are new challenges in the country. The country is diversified,” he said. “We need to be different. I think we can hold onto our core principles, which have always been limited and accountable and effective government. But more importantly, we need to rededicate ourselves to core American principles, which are equality, liberty and the other foundational principles of our country, and that’s where I think we’ve sort of drifted.”
Mike Madrid, a California-based consultant who’s an expert on Hispanic voting trends, suggested that the path chosen by the party in 2016 — toward an emphasis on white voters — would continue.
“While the Romney-Bush bloc will continue as a strong force for another decade or so, the Republican Party will continue to be dominated by candidates espousing views that reflect the shrinking white, non-college-educated working class base,” he said. “As that demographic shrinks, so will the party’s ability to grow beyond that base as it repels voters from the fastest growing segment of the electorate.”
“The GOP we knew pre-Trump began its death march the day Trump secured the nomination,” said Tara Setmayer, former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) and now a CNN commentator. “It has accelerated down the slippery slope ever since with party leaders who used to be the vanguards of basic Republican principles and decency now becoming enablers of the party’s own long-term demise.
“Trump’s brand of rabid economic populism fueled fear and isolationism rather than optimism and inclusion is the antithesis of Reagan’s ‘shining city on a hill’ or Bush’s brand of ‘compassionate conservatism,’ ” she continued. Could the party of those eras be resurrected? “I’m not sure.”
Several of those we spoke with think this year’s midterm elections could be clarifying about where the party might end up.
“Electorally in 2018, I expect it’s not going to go well in the House,” McMullin said. “I expect we’re going to end up with a party that is more committed to Trump than it is now. Many moderates are already saying they’re not going to run again. Others will be defeated.”
“So it’ll be a smaller contingent in the House but it’ll be more be more Trumpian,” he continued. “I think that will accelerate the party’s movement towards a shrunken, smaller, less influential space, more electoral defeats, which will hopefully lead to reform.”
Said Jolly: “A major midterm setback would be a wake-up call for the party, but I’m not convinced leadership nor base voters would even get the message. Trump certainly wouldn’t. For the party to emerge from Trump refocused on traditional conservatism that can reach a broader constituency, it may require Trump to suffer a historic rejection by voters, or be implicated in the Mueller probe.”
For the party to revert to the pre-Trump GOP, Setmayer said, “it will take massive electoral losses as a repudiation of the Trump brand of politics. That may jolt enough people to rethink their embrace of Trumpism and course correct.”
The tension between Trump supporters and the old guard will at some point lead to “a real bitter moment of post-Trump confrontation,” Jolly said. “It’s going to be bad. The healing of the party will not come easily, when those who have been complicit attempt to simply dismiss the Trump era without addressing their own tolerance of it.”
So where will the party end up?
McMullin noted that presidents tend to shape generations of party members.
“Donald Trump I see as a symptom of challenges in the Republican Party that pre-exist him,” he said. “He was able to exploit and then exacerbate them. Now he’s brought up a whole generation of people who think that’s what the Republican Party is and should be and that’s what they expect the Republican Party to be. Just as there were Reagan Republicans, Reagan Republican youth — now there are Trump Republican youth. That is going to set the party back even further.”
Madrid agreed that Trump’s influence has already grown deep roots.
“While the return of Romney-Bush candidates has the potential to reinvigorate the GOP in isolated elections,” he said, “the Republican based tendency to double down on nationalist policies contrary to its recent history will lead to a cleavage not likely to heal for a generation — if at all.”
What defines where the party goes is the same thing that defines the Trump era, many of those we spoke to said: Its approach to race and diversity.
“Demographic changes in the U.S. alone, before the rise of Trump, presented a challenge for the Republican party’s future nationally,” Setmayer said. “With Trump’s historically low approvals among women overall, minorities and millennials, he continues to damage the Republican brand with voters the GOP needs to win elections down the road.”
“The most healthy parties are those that appeal to a cross section of voters that resembles the country at large,” said Stevens. “The Democratic Party, for all its flaws, is more successful at that than the Republican, which is why they keep winning the popular vote.”
He noted that Hispanic Republicans do better with Hispanics than other Republicans do — but black Republicans are rejected by black voters.
“It will take a genuine, long term commitment to appeal to a broader section of America” for the party to change, he said. “The party didn’t shrink with one election and it won’t expand with one election.”
“The party that is able to speak to an aspirational multi-racial middle class will dominate U.S. politics for the next generation,” Madrid said. “While Democrats struggle with their working class narrative, Republicans have all but abandoned any attempt to appeal to voters beyond its shrinking white base.”
“Certainly we need to be a party that’s more open to people of different backgrounds: religious, ethnic backgrounds. There need to be some changes,” McMullin said. He continued: “It used to be that the white nationalist crowd was sort of pushed into a far dark corner in the party. They knew to keep quiet. They were a minority — but now they’re emboldened and now more people are ascribing to that way of thinking.”
Understandably, those we spoke with were pessimistic about the party’s current position.
“Since the election of Bush 41,” Jolly said, “the GOP has only won the popular vote in a Presidential election once — 2004 — and gerrymandering and closed primaries have largely benefited Congressional Republicans in the last 20 years. The electoral trend is not our friend.”
Said Stevens: “The electoral college saved the Republican Party in 2000 and 2016. But if the majority of Americans keep voting for a candidate who doesn’t take office, how long will this last? Hard to imagine the electoral college surviving if its purpose is consistently to nullify the votes of millions of Americans.”
Setmayer summarized what she views as the existential challenge the party faces.
“If Republicans do not course correct,” she said, “the party will go the way of the Whigs.”