What does he see?

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The Party of Trump

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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As this week's slugfest between Donald Trump and the Pope confirms, the 2016 election is unlike others we have known. Trump may eventually lose to another candidate. Or he could end up with the most delegates and the Republican nomination for president.

Which raises a basic question: What is the Republican Party if Trump is its nominee?

The answer is not immediately obvious. Parties are amorphous and hard to define, but they are much more than the shadow cast by a presidential nominee. The Republican Party has traditions and factions, dispositions and interests, and it embodies and conveys an identifiable set of values. The gun lobby and conservative Christians are generally components of the party. Unions and environmentalists are generally not. And pretty much everyone gets that.

If Trump gains the nomination, however, many Republican verities are up for grabs. Trump has proposed a sometimes fiercely protectionist agenda in a party known for free trade. He has converted to the more than three-decade-old party line opposing abortion, but countered its more recent demonization of Planned Parenthood. He has advanced a wholly new Republican aspiration -- government protection of the sort of jobs made vulnerable by globalization -- while at the same time endorsing most of the party's habitual tax policies to further enrich those who benefit most from globalization.

"He has the potential to reshape the party around a new coalition," said Republican consultant Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign, in an interview. A new coalition means a new set of interests, supporters and attitudes. Blue-collar concerns, protectionism and white nationalism would be ascendant; some Democrats, including some Bernie Sanders supporters, might answer Trump's call. "Big companies, the Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street would all take a big hit," Schmidt said.

On national security, the orthodox Republican narrative portrays the 21st century as a matrix of threats to which Democrats render us vulnerable, and from which only the Republican Party can keep the nation safe.

Trump obliterated that narrative in a South Carolina debate last week, accusing President George W. Bush of being unprepared for al-Qaeda's 2001 attacks, and thus responsible both for the devastating result and his administration's disastrous response -- invading Iraq. Trump repeated the claim at a CNN forum Thursday night, blaming Bush for destabilizing the Middle East, leading to the creation of Islamic State, while scaling back his charge that Bush had "lied" about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

If Trump manages to win despite such flagrant heresy, what tenets of the Republican faith remain sacred? Will the party keep insisting that tax cuts for wealthy "job creators" really create jobs? That the tax on wealthy estates is truly so onerous? Protecting the interests of the wealthy rarely ranks high on the demands of blue-collar voters, regardless of their party affiliation.

Trump has already rejected the Republican gospel that runaway "entitlements" -- Medicare and Social Security -- are bankrupting the nation. He attacks Obamacare, but has also rejected the implicit Republican stance that Obamacare can be repealed without dangerous consequences. If someone is dying on the street, Trump told Sean Hannity, some Republicans would say "let him die." Trump repeatedly promises something more humane (albeit less explicit).

A party is partly the sum of its history, and what it tells itself about that history. The Party of Lincoln, arguably the greatest Republican president, celebrates Ronald Reagan as its patron saint. Reagan's presidency solidified the Republicans' post-1964 transition to a white, southern-based party wedded to individualism and unfettered free enterprise, and laced with a potent dose of racial resentment.

That regional shift, Schmidt maintains, has hindered the party in national elections. "The country's southern party traditionally doesn't win presidential elections," he said.

The emergence of a brash New Yorker vying for the party's leadership signals change. "It seems like we're at a moment when something new is forming," Schmidt said. A Trump nomination would confirm it.

The impact of a Trump nomination would be felt among Democrats as well. Sanders, the Vermont socialist, is waging a spirited insurgency against the quintessence of a middle-of-the-road Democrat. The Democratic coalition, too, is looking shaky. But Sanders needn't win to shake up his party; Trump might do it for him. It's possible that a fight between Hillary Clinton and Trump would push more white working class Democrats into Trump's column, leaving the Democrats to manage an increasingly awkward partnership of prosperous coastal white elites and vastly less affluent racial minorities.

A Trump presidency promises to confound. The party's head, grafted to a distrustful body, would be facing one direction and its Congressional majority another. The chance that Trump would simply dominate an inevitable battle of wills seems slight; the chance that Republicans would steal their party back is perhaps even slighter.

Indeed, as Trump's threat to decades of strict Republican orthodoxy grows more real, party elites will no doubt rush to co-opt him. Good luck with that. It may already be too late even for Trump to apply the brakes to his runaway campaign.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net