Donald Trump will become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee next week, the celebration of a quixotic, populist-fueled journey that should signal a new era for the GOP.
The Republican Party, which will begin one of its most tense, uncomfortable and seemingly disorganized conventions in memory Monday, remains at its core the party of Ronald Reagan.
“Reagan still has a psychic hold on this party,” said Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer.
The path the GOP began following at the dawn of Reagan’s presidency nearly 36 years ago survives and thrives, with little dissent from party officials.
Reagan’s shadow lurks over this four-day convention, providing comfort at a time when few party regulars trust Trump. The spirit of Reagan is a reminder to the 2,472 convention delegates and thousands more in the audience that theirs is a movement that has shaped the party, politics and policy for nearly two generations.
“In the next few days, the party will take on the identity of the nominee,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan. “But then it will revert to the philosophical base of the party.”
As its draft platform approved in Cleveland the week before the convention shows, the party itself remains deeply skeptical of government, trusting in muscular foreign policy and allied with Christian and social conservatives. The disagreements in this summer’s platform meetings, for example, didn’t involve whether a woman has a right to an abortion – opposition to abortion has been a Republican staple since the Reagan era – but whether babies not yet born should be called unborn or preborn.
Ronald Reagan was president from 1981 to 1989
Trump is trying to put his brand on the party. He got the platform to support his call for a U.S.-Mexico wall and a harder line on trade.
But while many Republicans across the country applauded those issues, most say they will vote for him more out of disgust with Democrat Hillary Clinton than support for the GOP candidate. Take away a dreaded opponent, and his support plummets. A new McClatchy-Marist poll this week found that Republicans would go overwhelmingly for Reagan in a head-to-head choice with Trump. Bottom line: He’s too new, too raw and too divisive to be regarded as a seminal force.
“Trumpism is Donald Trump, someone with a unique personality who got most of the votes this year,” said Sal Russo, a former Reagan aide based in Sacramento, California, and more recently chief strategist for the conservative Tea Party Express.
The skepticism about and often disdain for Trump are vividly reflected in the quiet but stubborn movement to deny him the nomination, an effort that was headed nowhere but persisted into the eve of the convention.
The skepticism and outright dislike are more obvious in the long roster of familiar party names who aren’t coming to Cleveland next week, notably the GOP presidential nominees in six of the past seven elections since Reagan left office.
Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush are staying home, appalled at Trump’s belittling of their son and brother during the primary campaign.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 nominee, was offended by Trump’s assertion last year that McCain, held for five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison, was not a war hero “because he was captured.” Mitt Romney,the 2012 nominee, has been a fierce Trump critic, branding him a “phony” and a “fraud.”
Only 1996 nominee Bob Dole is expected to show up.
No, I’ve said it.
Trump response to WAVY-TV on Monday when asked if he’d like to apologize to John McCain
Yet there are similarities between Trump and Reagan.
Both men took unconventional roads to political success, and used their skills as entertainers to capture the public imagination. Reagan was an actor whose first run for office came in 1966, at age 55, when he won the California governorship. Trump, 70, a New York-based business mogul and reality TV star, had never sought elective office.
Both also displayed forceful personalities with a knack for rallying frustrated voters.
But there the similarities end.
Reagan led a conservative movement with deep intellectual roots, one that tasted success in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was the nominee. By 1980, “there was a palpable sense of excitement. Delegates had a sense they were writing history,” Shirley said.
That feeling hasn’t emerged this time, at least not yet. Trump is not leading, nor has he been embraced by, any such movement.
Reagan had a knack for making people like him, and he brought the party together during the sometimes-bitter 1980 convention by choosing as his running mate George H.W. Bush, then a favorite of center-right Republicans.
Trump has a flair for making people dislike him; just last week, he refused to apologize to McCain and criticized the senator’s record on veterans affairs.
Reagan practiced the politics of addition. Trump practices subtraction.
Reagan biographer Craig Shirley
Trump forces also have sought less of a policy imprint. The most public opportunity came earlier this week, as Republican platform-writers met to craft a guide for the next four years. Reagan’s allies used the preconvention platform week in 1980 to change the party’s center-right direction, firmly steering it to the right.
His forces moved the party platform on abortion rights, opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, a strong defense aimed at thwarting and intimidating the Soviet Union, and shrinking the size of government.
Trump’s lieutenants did get victories. They worked quietly, getting support for building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and for abandoning long-held Republican backing for free trade pacts.
Those are important points, because the party of Trump will be a party that is promoting a new sort of politics, a very personal, scathing, angry politics, rejecting Democratic and often Republican insiders alike.
It’s a politics that expresses the frustrations of middle-class Americans over the years.
“It speaks to a large contingent of voters who haven’t had a raise in 15 years,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a conservative group.
Reagan also spoke to the economic frustration of the late 1970s, blaming the federal government. Trump rails against the government, too, but also blames broad groups of people for the country’s fears, including Mexicans and Muslims.
As Reagan wrapped his agenda in the broad mantle of the party and conservative movement, Trump signals that his is a more personal, top-down approach. There is no unifying intellectually based document or movement underlying all this. Top adviser Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., urged only a “lean,short platform” describing what the party stood for.
Should Trump win the White House, 2016 could be viewed as the year that this angry, unscripted outsider took control of the Republican Party. It could spawn more people from the worlds of business, entertainment and other nontraditional political training grounds to try to shake up and streamline the government.
“Fourteen million people did vote to go in a certain direction,” noted former RNC Chair Duncan.
Should Trump lose, though, the way he’ll win at this convention underscores that there could be little about his effort to shape the party that would survive his campaign.