Words Leigh Ann Caldwell & Benjy SarlinPhotographs Mark PetersonVideos Matt Rivera
The future of the Republican Party — with or without Donald J. Trump — is weighing heavily on the party’s top elected officials, thought leaders and activists. It’s a topic sure to be dissected once the results on Election Day, November 8, 2016, are tallied. Beyond Trump lays out the possibilities ahead for a political party facing an existential crisis.
When Donald Trump entered the presidential race in June 2015, the Republican Party was divided. By the time he accepted his nomination just over a year later, it had shattered into pieces.
The GOP for years was a diverse but sturdy three-legged stool of security hawks, tax cutters and religious conservatives. Within that coalition, stakeholders might jostle for prominence but generally got along, united by the common goal of winning elections.
Divisions within the party existed before Trump won the 2016 nomination, but were exacerbated in recent years as establishment Republicans battled with conservative populists over a variety of hot-button issues, including immigration. Tactical fights erupted over whether to threaten government shutdowns and how much to compromise with Democrats. Smaller factions within the party, like libertarians, battled to push their policies to the top of the agenda.
Then came Trump. The real estate mogul’s ascent didn’t just catch Republicans by surprise, it went against everything many party stalwarts thought they knew about the GOP and its voters.
Trump violated party orthodoxy on trade, entitlement reform, money in politics and national security. He exposed a huge portion of the Republican base that either disagreed with party leaders on key issues or didn’t care what they had to say. To some degree, the celebrity candidate challenged the idea that policy proposals even mattered: His own positions were far from consistent; he shifted regularly, even on signature issues; and he scoffed at the need for depth or nuance. The thrice-married candidate’s checkered personal history and crude rhetoric flew in the face of the party’s religious, conservative image. And his appeals to bigotry forced some Republicans to consider whether the left’s portrayal of the GOP as the party of white resentment was more accurate than they had once thought.
“The party of Reagan was the party that had coalitions that worked seamlessly together,” GOP strategist John Feehery said. “What Donald Trump has identified is a party that is literally splitting apart between the donor class and the working class parts of the party.”
Whether or not Trump prevails in November, the GOP is set for a rebuilding process like none in recent memory. If he wins, he’ll face a Congress whose leaders have largely distanced themselves from his brand and who oppose much of his agenda. If he loses, his one-of-a-kind candidacy offers each faction of the party a credible argument that its approach would have carried the election instead.
We asked more than a dozen prominent minds in the Republican Party, including Trump supporters and Trump critics, fiscal conservatives and social conservatives, tea party rabble-rousers and veteran establishment hands, to assess the impact of Trump’s emergence and where the party goes from here.
Despite their differences, the conservatives we interviewed described their ideal Republican Party in similar terms, one guided by values like “free enterprise,” “individual responsibility,” “limited government,” “family” and “security.”
How to achieve that ideal was another story. Participants disagreed sharply on the policies that constitute true conservatism, the changes needed to secure its political future, and, above all, what Trump’s emergence meant to them. Was he a malevolent force that needed to be purged? A prophet heralding necessary changes? A freak occurrence with no greater meaning at all? Or some mix of all of the above?
In the course of these conversations, four broad paths emerged, each pointing to different agendas, different messages, different coalitions of voters and a different conception of what it means to be a Republican.
Welcome to Choose Your Own Adventure: Republican Party edition.
Trump Takes Over the GOP
The current path is the one Trump offers: The Republican Party remade in his image.
While Trump’s policies are inconsistent, the broad contours of his vision are clear enough. A Trump Republican Party would champion blue-collar white workers and lean heavily on fear and resentment to excite small donors, recruit volunteers and motivate supporters.
Politicians in Trump’s Republican Party would showcase their opposition to illegal immigration on economic, cultural and security grounds while casting suspicion upon Muslims at home and abroad. Most claims of racial inequality would be brushed aside as divisive. Leaders would be unapologetically brash in the face of “political correctness.” A new “America First” foreign policy would push back against free trade agreements, military alliances and the U.S.-led international institutions that enforce these arrangements. The party would table old arguments over shrinking government and reforming entitlements, urging robust government intervention instead to help workers left behind by economic changes.
As Liz Mair, an anti-Trump, libertarian-leaning Republican strategist put it, the party under Trump’s leadership is “less about protecting and expanding freedom and liberty and much more about trying to placate angry, working class, predominantly male white voters” with proposals that emphasize “sticking it to people outside their demographic.”
Trump has said his vision for the GOP is a “worker’s party.” In a break from the party’s smaller-government past, he has suggested a massive federal investment in infrastructure to provide jobs directly to struggling areas, not unlike the federal stimulus package President Obama pushed through early in his first term over nearly unanimous GOP opposition.
All of these positions challenge the Republican Party’s traditional three-legged stool of social and fiscal conservatism and national security interventionism. In other words, Trump’s most loyal backers have soundly rejected the party’s fundamental orthodoxy.
“I saw that [George W. Bush] mentioned in the paper … that he thought this was the end of the Republican Party,” former New York gubernatorial nominee and Trump’s state campaign chair Carl Paladino said. “I certainly hope it is the end of the Republican Party as he knew it.”
Paladino himself is a good example of what a post-Trump GOP candidate might look like. A successful businessman, he won the New York Republican nomination for governor in an upset in 2010 despite behavior that included sending racist and pornographic images to an extended email list of friends and reporters. He cratered in the general election, but says he sees a path for the party if it can rack up higher and higher margins with disaffected Democrats in downtrodden places like his hometown of Buffalo.
“The Republican Party is already halfway to that change,” Paladino said. “They’re already addressing, exclusively, the middle class, and making it better, and taking them along for the ride.”
Several Republicans who spoke to NBC News agreed this transformation would only realistically occur if Trump wins, prompting holdout Republicans to fall in line behind his agenda.
“If he loses … he will have proven to be nothing but a flash in the pan and will have little lasting impact,” Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin said. “If he wins, it will prove the Chamber of Commerce-driven elite agenda is dead as a national platform.”
But even some Republicans opposed to Trump’s candidacy suggest the party could be on a path toward Trumpism1 regardless of what happens in November.
Some pointed to Europe, where far-right parties have rapidly gained ground touting a similar message on issues like immigration and trade. Just like Trump’s campaign, the political debates in those countries have often pitted elites against populists, older voters against younger voters and white voters against non-white voters. In this context, Trump looks less like an outlier in American politics and more like the product of a global trend.
“I suspect that he’s more or less permanently turned the GOP into a European style ‘far-right’ party like the National Front in France or the Party for Freedom in Belgium,” Leon Wolf, editor of the conservative RedState and a fierce Trump critic, said.
Trump himself is well aware of this dynamic: He supported the Brexit vote to leave the European Union, which was spearheaded by the nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party, and has regularly cited its winning coalition as a model for his own. “They will soon be calling me Mr. Brexit!” he tweeted in August.
For the party to go down this road, Trump’s presidential run would have to inspire a generation of candidates to take up his playbook on the local, state and federal level. If his voters stay politically engaged and influential figures in talk radio and media outlets like Breitbart continue to embrace their agenda, they could force Republican leaders toward Trumpism with primary threats, just as tea party activists pushed Congress toward rigid conservative doctrine before them. Trump could encourage this himself by continuing to target Republican critics in the press, by purchasing or founding media outlets to spread the Trumpist gospel, or even by running for president again.
An early case study might be Paul Nehlen, the Republican challenger to House Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin, who ran a campaign linking himself tightly to Trump and calling for the possible deportation of all Muslims from America.
Nehlen was always a longshot and lost by a wide margin, but future candidates in more favorable districts and states could be more formidable. The same night Nehlen lost, a former talk radio host won an open House primary in Minnesota, despite making shocking remarks about women and slavery. On a national level, it’s not hard to imagine someone like Sarah Palin (a supporter of both Nehlen and Trump) becoming a real threat to win the 2020 nomination on a Trumpist platform.
“It’s no longer the rich, suburban country club party,” said former Sen. Rick Santorum, whose own 2016 run included calls for a decrease in immigration and an increase in the minimum wage. “Whether the party recognizes it or not, it’s going to be reflected in who’s going to do well in our elections.”
The challenges to this approach are obvious. The party would be betting its national fortunes on an aging demographic that’s rapidly being eclipsed by a new generation of more diverse voters who are unfamiliar with the country Trump invokes when he says, “Make America Great Again.”
“Whatever we do during the Donald Trump Era we’ve got to be cognizant an older, whiter, more male party is a party that’s never going to win another presidential election,” Feehery said.
But just because the math on this movement doesn’t add up past 2016, doesn’t mean the party can avoid being taken along for the ride.
As a candidate, Trump repelled many Republican elites even as he attracted millions of disaffected GOP voters. That clash is threatening to tear the party apart this year, but what if there was a way to excite Trump’s voters without alienating everyone else?
That’s the path offered by a prominent set of conservative intellectuals who see Trump’s success as proof of their longstanding argument that the party needs to reinvent itself as the champion of the little guy.
Their case goes like this: Trump won because he was the one candidate who realized the Republican Party had fallen out of touch with its own voters and ordinary Americans in general. While GOP candidates, donors and activists came together in the past behind a platform of cutting entitlement benefits, slashing taxes for the wealthy, passing trade deals and embracing immigration, many Republican voters were more interested in paying their bills and didn’t see how any of those longstanding party principles helped their day-to-day lives. Opposition to President Obama kept GOP leaders and voters on the same page until 2016, when everyone started looking past Obama’s presidency. That’s when the Republican platform’s rotten foundation collapsed.
“Republicanism isn’t that good of a product,” Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, said. Instead, the party needed to rebuild around “pushing opportunity to the people who need it the most.”
Proponents of this theory, who include prominent “reform conservative” writers like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and National Review editor Reihan Salam, mostly loathe Trump, especially his appeals to racial prejudice. But they’ve also spent years warning Republicans of a rude awakening if they don’t find ways to address his voters’ concerns about stagnant wages and competition from immigrants and foreign rivals. Douthat has described Trumpism as “reform conservatism’s evil twin” — an unworkable agenda GOP leaders brought upon themselves by ignoring the conservative intellectuals’ think tank-friendly alternative.
So how does a candidate win these disaffected Trump supporters? Show they’re willing to stand up to the same donor class that Trump used as his foil. That would mean painful sacrifices for small government activists and the wealthy backers who fund their cause.
“Republicans need to be less doctrinally wedded to free market economics, which is not to say turning back on the market, but to say that there are times when intervention is justified to ensure everyone has a fair shake,” Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, told NBC News.
In line with that approach, reformers’ suggestions include a more skeptical eye toward immigration, new tax credits to raise working class incomes and an openness to subsidized health insurance and child care.
Reformers’ immigration positions are still a far cry from Trump’s. There are no calls for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants or giant walls. The focus instead would be on preventing future illegal immigration and revamping the legal visa system to reduce the number of workers competing with Americans for jobs.
“I think the age of mass migration has to come to an end,” David Frum, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said. “I think the Republican Party also needs to make its peace with universal health care coverage.”
One crucial prescription a number of reformers have named: Abandoning the party’s never-ending quest to slash taxes for the rich. Not only does it undermine its populist credibility — especially while the party is asking voters to endure cuts to Medicare and Social Security — it soaks up money that could go to funding middle-class benefits.
The hope, reformers say, is that by rallying around a worker-focused economic program while ditching Trump’s bigotry and misogyny, the party could convince minorities, women and young voters to give the GOP a second look.
Embracing Trump’s voters carries its own dangers, though. It could turn out that a “reform conservative” candidate is caught in the deadly middle: Too populist on economics to attract support from big donors and ideological conservatives, but too “politically correct” to fire up Trump’s base and attract small donor support.
Appealing to voters’ financial bottom line instead of white resentment is a winning strategy if the bottom line was what drove them to support Trump. But what if white resentment was what actually brought them to his rallies? Or what if making offensive statements is a litmus test for blue-collar Republicans that proves a candidate is on their side and not part of the Washington establishment?
If that’s the case, reform conservatives run the danger of being outflanked by Trump-like candidates willing to offer voters more populism and more anger. A reformer could promise new investments in infrastructure only to face a candidate who promises double. Another might promise new limits on worker visas only to be met with a promise to build a border moat and fill it with alligators.
“The populism always runs to its s***** natural endpoint,” Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson, a fierce critic of Trump, said. “You can’t satisfy that monster.”
The Party Establishment Wins
If there’s one thing we know about Donald Trump, it’s his professed deep disdain for the political establishment, which has shown him no great love, either. If he loses in November, the Republican establishment, along with its donor class, could claim victory and restore the party to its former image while purging the party of its populist influence.
“I just don’t see the GOP adopting [Trump’s] policy positions in the long run,” said Lanhee Chen, a Stanford professor and former top adviser to Mitt Romney.
Following a Trump loss, the donor class would point to the election results as proof that his coalition of working-class, less-educated white men doesn’t spell victory in a general election. They would dismiss the policies that Trump championed, insisting voters don’t support trade restrictions, mass deportations, a Muslim ban or preserving entitlements.
“We told you so,” the donor class would argue. And they’d be energized and emboldened to restore the GOP to its former self: A pro-business, anti-tax party, perhaps offering minor concessions for the new generation.
“I suspect much of the GOP, like what they used to say about the Bourbons of France, is that they’ll learn nothing and forget nothing,” Erick Erickson, founder of the conservative media site TheResurgent.com, said.
This post-Trump party would surely try to become more diverse. It would revive key portions of the Republican National Committee’s 2012 “autopsy” and resume its outreach to women and minorities, especially Hispanics, whom Republicans, especially Trump, have turned away. The party would also work to win young voters by softening opposition to social change, especially gay rights. This evolution would begin with immigration reform, and would not include automatic deportation or a concrete wall paid for by the Mexican government.
Fred Malek, Republican donor and former Republican administration official for four presidents, argues the GOP must look to its founding to find its future.
“The party of Lincoln must endeavor to behave like the party of Lincoln,” Malek said. “The only party with two governors of Hispanic descent, two governors of Indian descent, three female governors and the only African-American U.S. senator needs to celebrate the diversity of our country. We need to welcome immigrants while preventing illegal immigration, demonstrate tolerance for all, have empathy for those with different views and promote policies that lift all boats.”
The party would still face a long climb out of a very deep hole. Trump’s policy proposals and rhetoric against Hispanics and African-Americans have strained and probably reversed past GOP efforts to woo those voters, panicking donors and the party establishment who know the party’s future depends on expanding beyond its older, white base.
“Every candidate for the foreseeable future will be viewed through the prism of Trump by voters. That’s a massive problem, especially since he’s turned off every key demographic the GOP needs to win national elections,” said Evan Siegfried, columnist and author of the newly released book “GOP GPS.”
Trump’s support among the growing population of nonwhite voters is dismal. The nonwhite electorate grew by 2 percent between 2012 and 2016 and now stands at 31 percent, according to a Pew Research survey. And a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Trump with zero percent support among African-Americans in the battleground state of Ohio, and his support among Latinos is lower than any previous Republican presidential candidate.
“If we are going to win national, general elections, we simply must do better with women, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans,” said Katie Packer, a veteran GOP strategist who helped lead the so-called “Never Trump” movement during the presidential primaries.
The party’s 2012 autopsy — officially called The Growth and Opportunity Project — urged a fresh look at immigration reform and outreach to Hispanics as central to the party’s survival. A number of Republicans have also advocated criminal justice reform to build credibility with black voters, something Trump sidesteps while he focuses on “law and order.”
“The autopsy was not a dumb document, it was smart,” said Wilson, the Florida political strategist. “It was dumb that we didn’t listen to it.”
To embrace the future, the party might also place some aspects of its social conservative agenda on the back burner — especially its focus on stemming the tide of gay rights. The party could continue to hold traditional beliefs without pushing religious freedom bills or restrictive bathroom legislation to the forefront of campaigns.
“We have to drop the social conservative stuff and recognize that many of our policies make millennials think we are a party of the past,” Siegfried said.
It’s not that proponents of this path don’t want the support of Trump voters. They just don’t think Trump is a true conservative, and that many of his policies that appeal to this group of voters don’t fall in line with Republican ideals.
Trump’s protectionist economic policies, in particular, have caused consternation among establishment Republicans, many of whom are business leaders.
“Sadly, some of these differences may be irreconcilable,” Chen said of the economic philosophy Trump and his supporters have embraced. “But the way that we can appeal to the great majority of Americans is for the party to return to first principles. A growing economy benefits every American. And a safe country with strong alliances around the world does the same.”
Tony Fratto, who served in the administration of President George W. Bush, said that adopting Trump’s economic policy proposals and the views of his followers “is not sustainable” if the Republican Party is to remain intact.
“What you have in that case is a completely incoherent party and it’s not something that can be properly called a national party,” Fratto said.
The establishment would revive efforts to shrink the federal government and cut taxes, especially for top earners, giving weight back to supply-side economics.
To overcome resistance, the newly restored establishment party might have to break the system that produced Trump. That could mean aggressive efforts by GOP donors to fund primary challengers against members who won’t fall in line. Party leaders could try to cut off damaging candidates early, as they did in 2012 when GOP organizations publicly renounced Missouri Senate hopeful Todd Akin over his comments on rape and abortion.
Such efforts took place in early August. A Kansas Republican House primary pitted an establishment challenger, Roger Marshall, against incumbent Tim Huelskamp, a tea party champion who had irritated party leaders by turning against them on key votes. Donors like the United States Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business lobbying group, and Chicago Cubs owner Todd Ricketts backed Marshall, who handily defeated Huelskamp.
If the party unites by using cash to crush anyone with an outsider streak, it risks acknowledging that a competition of ideas no longer exists. It’s a value that the Republican Party once prided itself on but has lost in the era of President Barack Obama as the party became one of Democratic opposition..
Mair, the anti-Trump Republican strategist, points out that the party has to once again become a party of “solutions.”
“Fix the underlying problems, which are not specific to Trump’s voters, but are causing Trump’s voters to rally to him and others to rally to Democrats. In short, do your job, and win as a result,” Mair said.
It’s become a daily mantra among Trump’s critics on the right: If only we had nominated anyone else, we’d be winning for sure right now.
“Hillary Clinton is so weak and vulnerable and had we chosen any other candidate as our standard bearer, we would likely defeat her come November,” Packer, the veteran GOP strategist, said.
But if Trump loses, no one faction competing for prominence in the Republican Party gets to claim victory, continuing a years-long stalemate within the party.
The establishment wing will claim Trump’s difficulty with minority voters means the party must diversify. The tea party wing will claim Trump’s disgruntled populists were mad that Congress didn’t fight Obama harder. Social conservatives will claim they should have nominated a candidate with pro-life credentials and one marriage, rather than three.
“I fear because of how screwed up the party is … regardless of what happens we’re coming out as a divided party with unanswered questions for large chunks of the party,” he said.
In this scenario, no one group would gain enough power to successfully lead the party. It would remain deeply fractured, with different segments vying for control and angry Trump supporters looming in the background pressing for change. Without one emerging faction as the winner, the agenda on trade, immigration, old-age entitlements and the role of the U.S. in a globalized world would grow even murkier. Congressional leadership would struggle to maintain a working coalition with a platform that goes beyond opposition to a Democratic administration.
Olsen, the fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, said that as a result it could take decades for the Republican Party to define itself, yielding Democrats the upper hand for years.
“I think it’s highly likely that instead of a debate that could have been roughly settled by 2020, we’re likely to have a much longer and much more difficult debate that could very well include more losses at the presidential level until they get it right,” Olsen said.
It’s not just that a Trump loss would fail to settle the party’s pre-existing debates. To many Republicans, Trump’s nomination was a fluke — one that could not be replicated by anyone else and would require few policy concessions to his voters.
“I think if he loses it won’t have had much of an impact on the party,” Terry Sullivan, who managed Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential run, said. “He’s a cult of personality; he’s not an ideologue.”
To Sullivan, Trump’s supporters weren’t paying much attention to his heretical breaks from longstanding conservative ideas. They were just mad.
“Anger is not an ideology,” Sullivan said.
Many in the party echo Sullivan, saying they are reluctant to predict major changes in response to Trump without proof there’s a movement beyond the man. It’s not like the party’s current iteration is such a disaster, after all: Republicans have had tremendous success at the state level and currently control the House and Senate.
“I think it’s a mistake for the Republican Party to walk away from the fact that we are the majority party in the United States,” said Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and current board member of the Family Research Council and the National Rifle Association.
Under this scenario, social conservatives will remain a driving factor in Republican politics and ideology. If Trump, a nonreligious candidate who has wavered on key issues like abortion and appears to embrace some aspects of gay rights, has not driven them from the party, their relevance in a post-Trump party would continue.
Penny Nance, president of the conservative group Concerned Women of America, says she is confident that social conservatives will be a leading force within the party.
“We are in good shape when it comes to issues of life,” Nance said. “Is this a party realignment? I think that there’s some good coming out of this, but I think there are also some struggles as we find our voice and find new folks coming alongside us.”
Another four-year period in the wilderness with no one faction gaining control isn’t necessarily all bad news. A number of Republicans expressed hope that the potential 2020 presidential field might yield greater talent than in 2016, with Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner often named as potential stars.
But if the GOP’s competing groups are wrong that Trump is a passing fad, they could end up recreating the conditions that allowed him to thrive. The 2020 election could be another divided contest filled with candidates vying for different “lanes,” leaving an opening for a Trump-like candidate to again swoop in.
A party in stalemate would be most evident in Congress, where policy battles can take place weekly, not just every four years. GOP lawmakers from suburban swing districts looking for compromise and results would knock heads with those from solidly red districts who believe the party needs to take a harder line.
David Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United and a Trump supporter, described the future of the party simply: “The establishment doesn’t always win; the grassroots still has power.”
For some Republicans disaffected by what happened in 2016, a stalemate would be preferable to a turn in Trump’s direction. Some, like Jeb Bush’s top adviser, Sally Bradshaw, who left the GOP over Trump, would likely rejoin the party to which she’s dedicated so many years. Ohio Gov. John Kasich would probably agree to attend his party’s next nominating convention, rather than sitting it out as he did this year. Packer, the Republican strategist, would perhaps no longer wonder what world she lived in.
“Donald Trump’s success has made me question some days whether I have a home in this party anymore,” Packer said. “His long pattern of disrespect for women, his mocking of the disabled and prisoners of war, his openly racist comments make me wonder who the people are who believe he is a leader fit to fill the shoes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes.”
In the end, if the party is to accept its many factions and encourage tolerance between different camps, the next goal could be to broaden the definition of conservatism rather than seek out its purest, most Reaganesque form.
“I say, diversify,” Michael Brendan Dougherty, a writer for The Week, said. “Find candidates to run in places where Republicans don’t run well, and give them the freedom to discover how Republicans can represent new constituencies. That may mean the GOP develops a protectionist wing, or a wing dedicated to a certain style of urban planning. So be it. All parties have radicals. Successful parties have moderates, too.”