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How Donald Trump became so important for the Republican Party

The Republican Party has changed over the years. In fact, one could say that it has gone so far to the Right that Republican messiah Ronald Reagan wouldn’t win a GOP primary now

October 27, 2020 / 08:21 AM IST

United States President Donald Trump has had many avatars — from real estate tycoon, to reality TV host, author, guest appearances in the world of cinema and the wrestling ring, and, yes, as US President.

One anomaly is that he has never held public office before his unconventional run in 2016, and against all odds, defeating not one, but two American political dynasties (Bush in the primaries and Clinton in the general) to ascend to the pulpit of power.

As Trump hangs on trying to secure a second term, he could very well join George HW Bush as one-term Republican President. A number of key GOP figureheads have expressed their disenchantment at his eccentricities, mismanagement of the office, poor governance and failure at handling the COVID-19 crisis.

Former GOP governor from New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, in a Financial Times article, wrote that for the GOP to survive, it must elect Biden. She stated: “Mr. Trump has never represented this party. Instead, he has fractured it and handed power to its most extreme elements. The president affiliated himself and, by extension, the party, with far-right extremists before belatedly condemning white supremacists”.

In another sharp rebuke, four-star Admiral Bill McRaven writes "truth be told, I am a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, small-government, strong-defence and a national-anthem-standing conservative. But I also believe that black lives matter, that the Dreamers deserve a path to citizenship, that diversity and inclusion are essential to our national success, that education is the great equalizer, that climate change is real and that the First Amendment is the cornerstone of our democracy…."


McRaven eschewed political diplomacy and candidly says Biden will make America lead again, as he voted blue.

The ennui for Trump can be attributed to his sclerosis to reach across the aisle, ineptitude in multilateralism, dereliction of ‘America’s perceived role in global diplomacy’, incompetence in handling the COVID-19 crisis, but there is a larger issue here.

Most fiscal conservatives and political pundits initially couldn’t fathom Trump’s meteoric ascent in 2016. More than the incredulity at his win in the general elections, the bigger conundrum was how did someone who doesn’t come in a traditional Republican mould rise to the highest echelons of the party, beating a very competitive pool, including the Bush (Jeb)-Rove machinery.

Of course, the Republican Party has changed over the years. In fact, one could say that it has gone so far to the Right that Republican messiah Ronald Reagan wouldn’t win a GOP primary now. Furthermore, there would have been a method in the madness if Senator Ted Cruz, who finished runner-up in 2016, had won the GOP primary. Cruz echoes the sentiments of the tea-party, the religious Right, in staunch pro-life, anti-same-sex marriage, strong proponent of the second amendment, holds deeply religious views, which at times juxtaposes his Princeton-Harvard educational pedigree.

Trump is an aberration on most counts, not just because of his unconventional maverick campaign and that he didn’t hold public office before occupying the Oval, it’s that Trump appeals to a far-Right base without necessarily fulfilling Cruz-like GOP credentials.

He has spent his career in Manhattan, as a billionaire real-estate tycoon, far from the working-class Rust Belt and doesn’t have religious views that would necessarily appease the evangelical Deep South. His predecessor, Mitt Romney, the last GOP presidential nominee in 2012, was seen as ‘out of touch’ with the common public, because of his Bain Private Equity background and his Harvard pedigree. Yet, it flummoxed so many, that Trump, a billionaire, who is out of touch with other billionaires, could appeal to working class rural voters.

Trump has had many a scandal in his personal life, and his three marriages don’t necessarily sit well with conservative voters who hold strong-family values as sacrosanct.

If that’s not enough, Trump donated to Carter’s campaign against Reagan in 1979, which is almost a Republican coup de grace. While we’re on the donation trail, he was once a proponent of his former arch-rival Hilary Clinton, against then Senator Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic Primaries.

So how did the Republican Party, once known as the ‘party of ideas’ in the 1980s, change into one which appeals to socially conservative sections of society. We can go back to the Civil War era, but for brevity sake let’s stick with 1964, when Democrat President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. His conservative opponent, Barry Goldwater, strongly opposed it saying it increased “Big Government” interference.

A century earlier, with the Union victory of the Civil War, the Republicans, and then President Abraham Lincoln, seen as a northern party, and one for egalitarianism, while in the south, the Democrats were seen as the party of the white southerners.

With the civil rights now codified into law, African American voters strongly switched to the Democrats, while a lot of white voters, who were once staunch Democrats resisted big government interference. The civil rights were seminal for many reasons, more than a bipartisan issue, it was a geographic one, strongly polarised as northerners in both parties agreed on civil rights, while southerners in both parties did not.

Ergo, LBJ allegedly quipped that “we have lost the South for a generation”.

Today, the identity of both parties looks very different from its earlier years. Many remain flummoxed as to how the GOP, strong abolitionists, went from the party of Lincoln to the party of Trump. Even ironically, how the Democrat Party, once proponents of slavery, manifest destiny, have now changed to the party most minorities identify with and the party that elected Barack Obama.

It’s no wonder that the Lincoln Project, a group of prominent life-long conservative voices have now dedicated their campaign efforts to support Joe Biden, in an effort to defeat Trumpism, along with Trump.

Akshobh Giridharadas is a Washington DC-based former journalist. Views are personal.
Akshobh Giridharadas
first published: Oct 27, 2020 08:21 am

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