President Trump with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Vice President Pence, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Columnist

There was a lot of talk in 2016 about Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party, but I wrote at the time that in business terms, the transaction was more like a reverse merger.

Maybe you’re unfamiliar with this particular bit of legal, yet slightly sketchy, legerdemain. A privately owned business wants to sell shares to the public but for whatever reason wishes to avoid the close scrutiny of an initial public offering.

So the business owner finds a near-dead company that is already public, buys it for a song, grafts the private enterprise into the hollow public shell and — voila! — the deed is done. One of my favorite examples involved CoolBrands, which once gave the world such frozen treats as Eskimo Pies and the Chipwich. After the yummy product lines were sold to other companies, only the shell remained on the stock market. A private maker of cleaning products snapped it up, and in a twinkling it was public, selling grill degreasers instead of ice cream.

The George W. Bush presidency left the GOP as hollow as CoolBrands minus the sweets. Botched nation-building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq shook the party’s faith in its Reaganesque freedom agenda. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression rattled its self-image as the party of fiscal competence. Republicans found an identity during the Obama years as the Party of No, but when something more elaborate was needed for the 2016 campaign, the lack of ideas became painfully clear. Sixteen other candidates tried out for the job of chief sales rep, and none could close the deal.

Instead, Trump snapped up the shell of the Republican Party and made it his public vehicle. This reverse merger has been finalized in recent days with a spending bill and proposed budget that no true conservative could love — or even tolerate — given the massive debt they will incur.

But don’t take my word for it. President Trump’s own budget director, the erstwhile tea party conservative Mick Mulvaney, allowed on “Face the Nation” that these Trump-branded debt bombs don’t square with his mothballed former principles. He was asked, were he still in Congress, would he vote in favor?

“Probably not,” Mulvaney replied.

He could drop the modifier, because there is not a chance in the world that the same Mulvaney who used the issue of President Barack Obama’s deficit spending to become the first Republican elected from South Carolina’s 5th District in more than a century would vote for Trump’s trillion-dollar debt debacle.

That Mulvaney is long gone, though, a casualty of the reverse merger. Gone, too, is the fiscal discipline once espoused by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who made a career selling the ice cream of a balanced budget but now peddles Trump’s soft soap. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had plenty of partners in denouncing reckless spending when Obama was minding the store. Now that Trump owns the party, however, Paul is a lonely voice in the night.

Budget discipline is not the only concept Republicans no longer sell. Trump has replaced the free-trade GOP with a protectionist outfit. He’s pushing isolationism and nativism instead of global engagement. Remember how Republicans used to pitch virtue and personal accountability? They’ve become the party of alleged wife-beaters and hush money to porn stars.

But nothing illustrates the reverse merger with Trump more clearly than the Republican-led House of Representatives cheerfully passing tax-cut and spending bills that together will drive the annual deficit past $1 trillion, without the slightest prospect of a balanced budget in their plans. Deficit spending in a slump can be necessary stimulus. To do it on this staggering scale in a period of steady growth and low unemployment is fiscal malpractice.

Republicans used to run on promises that they would make government more efficient by cutting “waste, fraud and abuse.” Forget that, too. Phase one of the first-ever audit of Pentagon budgets recently found the Defense Department is unable to account for some $800 million in spending — by a single agency! Many more defense agencies remain to be audited. Yet the GOP insisted on adding $165 billion over two years in new funding for a department that can’t adequately account for the $700 billion per year it already receives.

Lack of transparency is business as usual for Trump, and bankruptcy a familiar harbor. He’s a promoter, a tout, a shill — not a manager. It’s not at all surprising that he would funny up some budget numbers to create an annual fund of about $200 billion and call it a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. Trump doesn’t compare himself to P.T. Barnum for nothing.

To those of us who value a two-party system, though, it’s a shame to see the conservative party sell itself for scrap. The ticker symbol GOP is now POT: Party of Trump.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.