It’s been called a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, but there’s little that has happened since Donald Trump became the GOP’s presumptive nominee to suggest he wants anything to do with the party. He’s borrowing the brand for his own purposes.
In all ways, Trump continues to show that he is the anti-conventions candidate. That’s especially the case with any notions of him becoming the leader of a political party. Trump is a singular politician unlike any who has risen as fast and as far as he has in modern times. In the same way that he has demonstrated no consistency in his views on issues over time, there is nothing to suggest that he has much regard for the responsibilities and opportunities that come with being the leader of a party.
What has been apparent during Trump’s march through the primaries is how little he thinks or acts with the partisan — or party-building — instincts of typical politicians. The constituency he has attracted is certainly more conservative than liberal and far more Republican than Democratic. But the core issues that have brought him to this position — immigration, national identity, trade and jobs — which he projects with the posture of a strongman (or to his critics, a bully) speak to a candidate who looks at the electorate far differently than the typical Republican or Democrat.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign — like other campaigns in the past — sees the electorate as a series of constituencies to be wooed and won: women, Latinos, African Americans, millennials. Her messaging and advertising will target them one by one by one. Her overall message, that the country is stronger together, projects a desire for greater national unity, but she and her advisers have particular groups of voters in mind as they analyze how to win the popular vote and the 270 electoral votes needed to become president.
Trump, meanwhile, seems oblivious to all that. He certainly has a core constituency: white voters without college degrees. But through the primaries, his appeal was crosscutting, something that surprised and befuddled his opponents. Trump cut into the evangelical vote in ways no one had predicted he could. He did well among very conservative Republicans, among somewhat conservative Republicans and among the party’s moderate block.
He suffers from structural problems with the electorate, including a huge gender gap — strong numbers among men and lousy numbers among women — and apparent weakness among Hispanics. But when confronted with evidence that he’s potentially tanking among women and Hispanics, he’s dismissive. He predicts he will do better with those groups of voters than polling suggests, but he’s doing nothing to suggest he has a strategy for doing so. Quite the opposite.
If more evidence were needed that he is either oblivious or willfully disdainful of that approach to winning elections, Trump provided it this week when he attacked New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, the leader of the Republican Governors Association and one of the most important Hispanic women in the GOP. Trump claimed she hasn’t done enough to help her state’s economy. Her true sin is not treating Trump with the respect he expects.
The uproar over Trump’s comments about Martinez — how can he unify the party when he attacks someone of the governor’s stature, his critics ask — misses the point of where Trump is coming from. He is all about himself and sees no reason to change. After all, he became the last man standing in the Republican field, not one of the other 16 candidates, a group that included prominent governors, ex-governors, senators and others. Against a field of experienced politicians, Trump had the last laugh. Should he now bend to those telling him to run for president another way?
One key to Trump’s success in becoming the presumptive GOP nominee is that he has found ways to remain outside the existing political structure while running inside one of the major parties. Few saw it coming. He knew instinctively that there is a significant swath of the population to whom all politicians of whatever party are toxic and not to be trusted.
Trump didn’t create or even discover this condition. It’s been there for some years in survey after survey. But he found ways to exploit it that conventional politicians have been unable to do, primarily because they are part of the system that is despised by so many people. That’s why his candidacy seems authentic to those voters, why his supporters have been so loyal and willing to overlook the way he acts and the things he says that go beyond the bounds of what once was considered acceptable in politics.
No wonder he is resistant to calls for him to “evolve” to a different role or to modulate his rhetoric. At every turn, whenever there have been suggestions and advice tossed in his direction, he has responded by reminding everyone that he intends to be the bad boy of American politics. Can’t say outrageous things? Just watch me.
His Martinez comments fall into that category, but they’re not the only example. House Speaker Paul Ryan seemingly was inching his way toward an endorsement of Trump earlier this week and presumably will get there by the GOP convention. Republicans might have expected their presumptive nominee to be on better behavior to make Ryan’s conversion easier. Instead he decided to raise anew the long-discredited conspiracy theories suggesting that Vince Foster, the White House counsel in Bill Clinton’s administration, was murdered, though it has been established conclusively that he took his own life.
Trump’s campaign is working to build relationships within the party. His advisers know that they will need the resources of the Republican National Committee to mount a national campaign. He is now helping to raise money for that effort. He’s sitting down with members of the GOP establishment — elected officials and others — in an effort to build those bridges.
That might be necessary, but a lot of it is window dressing. Trump won’t change in any fundamental ways, because he believes in himself and believes he has disproved all the doubters. No one can say whether what worked in the primaries will work for him against Clinton in the fall. But there’s little doubt that he will continue to give heartburn to party leaders who long for something more accommodating in their nominee. It’s what he does.