Whether or not President Donald Trump wins re-election, his hold on the Republican Party will endure for years to come, supporters and opponents within the GOP agree.
Trump has led grassroots opinion on several hot-button issues, turned even elected officials who recoiled from him in 2016 into faithful supporters in 2019 and sidelined influential conservative critics.
He owes part of his success to his ingrained popularity among Republican voters, whose fervent loyalty hasn’t flagged, even as Trump’s actions and behavior shock the Washington establishment to the point of an impeachment inquiry. A mid-August poll from Gallup put his approval among Republican voters at 88%, essentially unchanged since Inauguration Day.
Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who is working with Trump’s re-election campaign, said the polls show he has moved grassroots opinion against free trade while foregrounding opposition to immigration that wasn’t well represented among the party establishment a few years ago. He doesn’t see any of that changing soon.
“His shadow will be cast over the Republican Party, just like Ronald Reagan,” he said.
Polls show Republican support for tariffs, a border wall and Russia have increased under Trump, while concern about the deficit has fallen.
But they also show a change at a deeper level. A recent poll from the University of Southern California Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times found that 47% of Republican voters said the GOP should “become more populist, stressing issues like strong borders, protecting jobs from foreign competition and standing tough against crime and social disorder.”
Only 25% wanted to see the party return to a more traditional focus on fiscal responsibility and pro-business policies.
Trump has also reshaped the outlook of the party’s elected officials.
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who chastised Trump for “textbook” racism and did not defend him after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape weeks before the 2016 election, has been replaced as House Republican leader by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose pinned tweet is a photograph of him with Trump aboard Air Force One.
Former Republican critics like Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker have retired. Others, including Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, have left the party.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who once compared Trump to white supremacist David Duke, has spoken out less frequently and, in turn, was recently endorsed by Trump for reelection. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who once called Trump a “nut job,” has become a full-throated defender of the president.
Matt Dallek, a professor of political management at George Washington University, said that Trump didn’t change the party as much as he simply recognized elements of it that weren’t represented in the 2016 primaries. He pointed to vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and tea party activists as predecessors in the shift.
“He was very savvy about seizing on all of these forces that were churning within the party,” he said.
But Dallek argued that, unlike transformational figures such as Reagan or Bill Clinton, Trump doesn’t have a larger ideological and political agenda, which could limit his influence over the long term.
Some traditional Republicans worry that Trump is damaging the party’s long-term prospects, and he faces three primary challengers in 2020 who are considered long shots: former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld; former Congressman Joe Walsh, a tea party advocate; and Mark Sanford, who was both a governor of South Carolina and a congressman.
Sanford told Bloomberg Radio on Wednesday that Trump’s version of the party will not be viable in the long run. “I think we’re looking at the virtual extinction of the Republican Party if we stay on the path we’re on,” he said.
Even if Trump loses next year’s election, some predict he’ll maintain influence within the party through his 64 million Twitter followers, cable TV interviews, a loyal base of supporters and standard-bearers like his son, Don Jr., who has hinted at potential runs for office.
Close watchers of Trump consider it unlikely that he’ll follow in the tradition of predecessors like the Bushes or Jimmy Carter, who effectively retired from politics after leaving the White House.
Outside of the party’s formal apparatus, Trump critics on the right have been largely shoved aside. The conservative Weekly Standard, which ran several cover stories critical of Trump, was shuttered last year, and Trump celebrated on Twitter.
Some influential conservatives have found themselves without a home in the Trump Republican Party, leading to a spate of books either criticizing Trump or examining the future of the GOP after his administration.
The list includes radio host Charlie Sykes’ “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” columnist Max Boot’s “The Corrosion of Conservatism,” George Will’s “The Conservative Sensibility,” writer and podcast host Ben Howe’s “The Immoral Majority,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson’s “Everything Trump Touches Dies” and former White House speechwriter David Frum’s “Trumpocracy.”
Howe said Trump’s abrasive personal style and embrace of culture war politics have transformed the Republican Party’s grassroots.
“They’ve tasted blood,” he said. “These culture warrior candidates are the foreseeable future of the GOP in my opinion.”
Noah Rothman, an editor at the conservative magazine Commentary, said the party could eventually snap back to its old positions in favor of free trade, especially if Trump’s trade war with China ends poorly. Yet even after leaving office the Trump years will continue to shape the party’s position on immigration and leave behind a more combative tone to politics.
“There will never be a post-Trump Republican Party,” he said. “He’ll always have a footprint.”