As they start a rump party convention, the Republicans — the party of good manners and good breeding, small-town hardware store operators and hardworking farmers — are about to renominate Donald J. Trump for president amid one haunting but hard truth: They have seldom faced a passage quite like the one of this era.
For years, the party was like a fraternal lodge, passing its presidential nomination to the Next Guy, which is why Vice President Richard M. Nixon was the party’s 1960 nominee, why former Gov. Ronald Reagan of California (the unsuccessful candidate in 1976) was its 1980 nominee, why Vice President George H.W. Bush was its 1988 nominee, and why Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole of Kansas (disappointed candidate in 1980 and runner-up in 1988) won the 1996 nomination — and why Bush’s oldest son, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, was nominated four years later.
On and on it went: The unsuccessful 2000 challenger Sen. John McCain of Arizona followed the younger Bush as the GOP nominee in 2008 and then former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts (the runner-up to McCain four years earlier) was nominated in 2012.
Then a reality TV star — a blustery figure more tycoon (see F. Scott Fitzgerald) than businessman (see Jos. A. Bank), an investor in real estate, resorts and casinos — knocked on the Republican door.
Actually, Trump kicked in that door, offered withering commentary on his more experienced 2016 competitors, and stormed to the Republican nomination in a raucous Cleveland convention where some of his rivals wondered out loud whether they could support him.
They all ended up doing so, with some of the targets of his most withering insults — Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas — eventually nestling close to him. He no longer was the Republican outsider. The old insiders were the outsiders now. Trump was — he is — today’s Republican Party.
That is not in question at the Charlotte proceedings. But what will linger in the air is whether he is tomorrow’s Republican Party, and whether the 7-year-old self-assessment the Republicans undertook after Romney’s defeat comes off the shelf.
That report, issued five months after Barack Obama was re-elected, described the Republicans as a “narrow-minded, out-of-touch” party of “stuffy old men,” stuck in “an ideological cul-de-sac,” and unappealing to minorities, females and the young.
Indeed, young adults have voted heavily Democratic in the last four elections. Before, that had happened only in the three Franklin Delano Roosevelt elections between 1936 and 1944. And as Nov. 3 approaches, according to a survey from Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, young voters support former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. by 34 percentage points. Many of these young people will be around to vote through the final quarter of the 21st century.
“It takes a lot for a party to take a group that they dominated 2-to-1 — Asian Americans — and then to lose that group 2-to-1,” said Harvard Kennedy School political scientist Thomas E. Patterson. “And the Republicans once had the college-educated. No more.”
It’s not as if the Republicans haven’t had serious splits before. For all their open-the-door-for-others manners at the club and cotillion, they have fought viciously — and repeatedly — over the years.
In 1940, their split led to the nomination of the political novice Wendell Willkie, who finished his life as an ally of his election rival, FDR. In 1976, Reagan nearly wrested the party’s nomination from a sitting president, Gerald Ford. In 1988, the commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who had challenged another GOP incumbent, the elder Bush, spoke at the party’s Houston convention of a “cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” He was talking not only about Democratic nominee Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, but also about his own Republican Party.
And yet these wars for the soul of the Grand Old Party pale in comparison with the one underway to, but shielded from television view in the Republicans’ upcoming Charlotte conclave.
Listen to Victor Davis Hanson, the influential conservative thinker at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, describe the GOP opponents of President Trump:
“Whenever Trump’s approval ratings go down to 41 and 42, they declare his doom. Part of it is cultural. They consider him uncouth and gross. They like the role of noble loser. They don’t want to win. For the first time in their lives, these conservatives are out of power and can’t figure out who the people are who are running things. Trump saw an existential threat and decided he had to destroy the left.”
Now listen to Stuart Stevens, a top strategist for every GOP nominee between Dole and Romney, and now a top figure in the Lincoln Project, conservatives who oppose Trump:
“I’m very pessimistic about this party after Trump. When a national party legitimizes hate, it takes a long time for that to go away. And when you look at the demography of the country, with whites in decline, you see a Stage 4 cancer warning for the party, you see maybe the end of the Republicans as a governing party. It has collapsed morally.”
The best analysis may come from Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative-oriented Washington Ethics and Public Policy Center who worked in the GOP administrations of Reagan and both Presidents Bush, and who sets out the Republican challenge after Charlotte:
“Do Republicans repudiate Trump and Trumpism and say the Trump experiment was a disaster for the party? Do Trump supporters try to take his mantle? There’s a lot of fear, anger and recrimination in the party.”
Very little of that will be visible from your living room, if you actually tune in; viewership for political conventions generally is down, and this convention won’t possess the intoxicating bluster and colorful bunting of the traditional quadrennial assembly.
Even so, Trump drew more viewers for his 2016 convention acceptance speech than did Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton. And if nothing else, Trump — a former Democrat turned Republican, a supporter of abortion rights turned opponent — retains one governing principle: The show must go on.