May 04, 2016

Credit: Cornell University

Now that he is all but assured the Republican Party nomination, it’s time to take stock. How will GOP nominee Donald Trump shape his party of choice? The early indicators are troubling.

Presidential nominees represent ascendant strains within their party coalitions. The more successful ones are able to move their party in a particular direction.

So it was with Eisenhower who moved his party and the country away from an isolationist future. Ike ensured the GOP would remain fully committed and engaged with the postwar order. Domestically, he would take the GOP into an accommodating relationship with the New Deal: largely accepting its parameters but refusing to innovate any further.

So it was with Reagan, the most significant leader of the GOP in generations. He moved his party into a much more conservative direction with an explicit critique of centralized state power and brought together the party’s three pillars: fiscal conservatives, anti communist internationalisms, and social values conservatives. Reagan, unlike Eisenhower, represented a Republican realignment against the New Deal vision America.

Other nominees had less of an impact on the long-term development of the Republican identity but attempted to redefine our conservative party for new eras with new challenges.

It was during their presidential campaigns that folks like Eisenhower, Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush laid the groundwork for party leadership and governance.

What of Trump? What groundwork has he laid for the kind of policy and party leadership that will animate the rest of his campaign and a potential presidency?

The answer is he hasn’t.

Take away the misogyny, threats of violence, ugly racism in his abbreviated policy proposals (“I will build a great, great wall”), and pithy obscenities and you’re left with a man almost completely devoid of substance.

Policy ideas animate parties: Ike’s internationalism or Goldwater and Reagan’s critique of national state power. Trump has no idea. Unmoored from substance, he pursues great power via personal vendetta.

What we end up with is no new definition of modern conservatism, no real counterpoint to the progressive vision of Barack Obama or presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

If the Republican party hopes to reestablish itself as a place where real ideas are welcome and promoted, it will have to wait until 2020 when people with some such as Ben Sasse or Nikki Haley or Joe Heck opt to take a turn at defining the conservative party for our era.

Let’s hope for their sake and the country that Donald Trump doesn’t break the party of Lincoln beyond repair.

Republican Party, Dwight Eisenhower, Donald Trump, Election 2016, Ronald Reagan

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