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Will The Republican Party Be Remade In Trump's Image?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen reflected in a mirror as he speaks to a crowd in New Hampshire last February.
The Washington Post
The Washington Post/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is seen reflected in a mirror as he speaks to a crowd in New Hampshire last February.

The prospect of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president has been raising a lot of questions for the GOP. Not just about how the party will fare in November, but what exactly Trump and "Trumpism" means for future of the party.

NPR asked four conservative thinkers to weigh in: April Ponnuru, Jonah Goldberg, Pete Wehner and Ben Domenech. All are "reformicons" — conservative reformers who've been thinking and writing about how the GOP could modernize itself, update Reaganomics and reach out to young and minority voters.

All of them have been critical of the GOP establishment, but all of them are also opposed to Donald Trump.

Here are some of their thoughts:

Is breaking the party a bad thing?

Donald Trump has broken with many elements of traditional Republican ideology — immigration, free trade, America's role in the world, entitlement reform. On all those issues Trump is challenging what the Republican party stands for.

Pete Wehner, former Bush White House policy aide:

"In terms of what it means to be a Republican in the age of Trump, I think it's a problem. People who have come to the Republican Party for a set of ideas and principles are now seeing those ideas and principles under attack. So this is a very real and intense and in some ways an existential battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and ... for the conservative movement."

Jonah Goldberg, the senior editor of the National Review, a conservative publication that took an early anti-Trump stand, thinks that existential battle could be a good thing:

"Everyone talks about how the Republican Party is going to be broken. And I think it probably is, and certainly the Republican party as we know it is doomed. And maybe that's not a bad thing, maybe that's a good thing you can have that debate."

Conservatives failed to make their case

To some extent that debate has already begun — and for now Donald Trump is winning it.

Three years ago, after its 2012 defeat, the Republican National Committee sketched out the beginnings of a post-Reagan Republicanism. The RNC's so-called autopsy report said the party had to reach out to minority voters, particularly Hispanics, by embracing comprehensive immigration reform. The base — now led by Donald Trump — responded, "Hell, no."

April Ponnuru of the Conservative Reform Network was the policy adviser for Jeb Bush — who tried and failed to point the Republican party in a different, non-Trumpist direction.

Ponnuru said Trump has prospered because conservatives failed to make their case to his voters, which are now a plurality of the GOP electorate:

"We do have our work cut out for us in terms of explaining why conservative philosophy actually works for people. I don't think the party has done a very good job of making that connection, especially for non-college educated voters in the last 10, 20, 30 years."

That's a long time!

Listening to Trump voters

For Ponnuru, the burden is on conservatives to update their message because, she says, the logical extension of Trump's rise in the party is really disturbing:

"Look this idea that Trumpism might be a new working class politics. I think to the extent there's any coherence to Trump at all it's a nationalist authoritarian politics. It appeals specifically to a subset of white people. It's a dead end. You know? He's his own brand."

Wehner agrees with Ponnuru — he said Trump is more an "attitude" than a coherent ideology.

But what if Trump is more than just his own brand? What if he represents more than just white hot anger at the establishment? It will be hard for the GOP to dismiss Trump's supporters — after all, these people are the base of the party.

Republicans have courted them successfully for years with social issues and encouraged their disgust with government. But all along the GOP was missing an agenda to address the economic pain these voters were experiencing because of globalization and wage stagnation.

And that's another question Trump's rise has raised for Republicans.

Should they try to do a better job explaining the benefits of free trade or immigration or entitlement reform? Or should the party offer new policies (other than a building a wall or starting a trade war) to help these downwardly mobile voters?

Ben Domenech, the publisher of The Federalist, says conservatives who oppose Trump need to listen carefully to his voters:

"Don't they deserve the respect of trying to go to them and say, 'Here, let me meet you on this place or on this place even if I'm not where you are on all these others things?' ... It's just that there's a way to do that the right way which is to appeal to them on principles of limited government and freedom. And there's a way to do that the wrong way which is to appeal to the xenophobia and the nativism."

What will emerge?

The GOP's awkward marriage of a working-class base and a corporate-backed establishment might be headed for divorce, and it's not clear yet what will take its place.

A nativist, isolationist, protectionist party? Or something else entirely?

Whatever emerges will have a sturdy base to build on. After all, the Republican party, at all levels except the White House, is in great shape compared to the Democrats, who are at their lowest ebb with their fewest elected office holders since the 1920s.

Right now, the party is consumed with the near-term fight over the nomination. Whether or not Trump ends up as the GOP's standard bearer in November will determine to what extent the party is reshaped in his image.

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.