Trump and the challenges he poses for the GOP

Yesterday, the voices from the left were voices of concern and fear. It will take the Democrats some time to lick their wounds and consider how they lost the election to the most repugnant candidate since Aaron Burr. But, in many ways, the challenges facing the Republican Party are both greater and certainly more immediate.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan had consistently declined to even mention Donald Trump's name in interviews and on the stump. Only on the last day of the election, when Ryan and everyone thought a Clinton victory was a foregone conclusions, did I hear him say Trump's name. Ryan is a decent man whose faith commitments have clearly become larger and larger in recent years, moving him away from his previous embrace of libertarian ideas. He is serious about policy. At some point yesterday, Trump faced a decision: Does he punish Ryan for his lack of enthusiasm or does Trump recognize that building a good relationship with Ryan will pay future benefits and forgive the speaker's former reluctance to embrace the nominee? Can he build a relationship with Ryan even if he tries?

The president-elect won for a variety of reasons, but none more so than the perception that, whatever his faults, he was not "one of them." Trump is, by any measure, a part of the elite he denounced but his willingness to confront that elite culture, and its often condescending biases against America's working class, was a key to his election. (And, unlike Clinton, when confronted with evidence that he was part of the elite, such as his ability to avoid taxes, he owned it.) Many Americans who were appalled by Trump's willingness to stoke racial animus voted for him anyway. To be clear: There are undoubtedly some racists who supported Trump, but not all people who supported Trump were racists. There were many, many counties, from Grafton County in New Hampshire to Pinellas County in Florida to Luzerne County in Pennsylvania that Barack Obama won but which Hillary Clinton lost. Those voters who supported both Obama and Trump are not racists, but it is a measure of their discontent with government that they were willing to vote for someone who pussyfooted with racists.

One of the challenges facing the Republican Party whenever they control the levers of power is that they acquired those levers in campaigns in which they railed against government. Now the government is entirely in their hands. People like government, even when they complain about it: I recall attending a Tea Party rally against Obamacare and seeing signs that read "Hands off my Medicare."

A key part of Trump's appeal, which I have noted previously, is the idea that a businessperson can fix things better than a politician. But, the orthodox Republican view is premised on faith in markets. Whether that faith is well placed or not, Donald Trump's business career has not been built on markets but on connections. He embodies the crony capitalism that the Republican policy gurus denounce. His real estate empire depends on negotiating tax breaks and shutting out competition. He made his money gaming the system the Republican establishment celebrates. On a host of economic issues, his experience will conflict with their ideology. And, besides, running a government or a church or a union is not like running a business.

Related, from Michael Sean Winters: The disaster that we chose (Nov. 9, 2016)

Trump's relationship with the religious right will be fascinating to watch. According to exit polls, and I think we need to employ them with great caution this year because they were so far off to begin with, Trump received 81 percent of the white evangelical vote. These are people who had signs and bumper stickers during the debate over same-sex marriage that read "One man, one woman, one lifetime," which is a fair definition of traditional marriage. They voted for someone whose bumper sticker would be more like "One man, three women, and as many women married to other men you can put your paws on, and you ditch them when they stop looking like the supermodel they once were, because this is the only life we got baby!" Apart from that disconnect, does anyone think Trump is seriously opposed to same-sex marriage or LGBT rights more generally? He is from New York.

For some conservative Catholics, the issue of religious liberty is wedded in their mind to the ability to discriminate against gays. Does anyone think Trump will side with conservative Catholics about whether or not a baker can decline to serve gays? Especially when he hears from his buddies in the business world, none of whom want to be tagged with the stigma of opposing gay rights?

Nowhere are the divides between Trump and GOP orthodoxy more obvious than in foreign affairs. And, nowhere does a president have more unfettered authority than in foreign policy. This is a recipe for conflict in an area where impetuosity is not a virtue and thoughtful consideration of alternatives is a requirement. A man who repeatedly tells us that he "trusts his gut" is not inclined to thoughtfully consider alternatives. How will someone like Sen. John McCain deal with Trump? How will the generals in the Pentagon? No one knows, but these are the questions that keep me up at night.

Throughout the spring, I thought that there had been a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and argued that other Republicans needed to own Trump. Democrats needed to say, day in and day out, to all other Republican office seekers: Do you agree with what Trump said this morning? Do you share Trump’s vicious characterization of immigrants? Do you think Trump is right to speculate about cozying up to Putin? I was wrong all along. The issue was not whether they would own Trump. He now owns them. It is his Republican Party now. Your grandfather's GOP, the party of fiscal restraint and small government, that party died a long time ago. Even Ronald Reagan did little to restrain government spending and George W. Bush went on a spending spree. The "compassionate conservatism" wing of the party has no place in Trump's tent: Michael Gerson, the party's conscience, will not be communications director in the Trump White House.

If the fact that Trump successfully portrayed himself as "not one of them" was a big reason he won, there is no escaping the fact that issues of national identity were at the heart of the election. His dark vision spoke to a large number of our fellow citizens, and that is scary, but that dark vision was always accompanied by a promise to make things better. It seemed to me all along that the promise was empty and the vision was dangerous but the American people took the risk. As I noted yesterday, a generation of Americans raised on consumer capitalism are ill-suited to the practice of democracy: They like quick and easy answers to complex problems. They chose the easiest answer on Tuesday, a strongman. That frightens the hell out of me, but it didn't frighten the hell out of them. The question is whether or not our constitutional and political restraints, and other Republican officeholders, will be able to channel Trump's strongman tendencies into strong leadership appropriate to a small "d" democratic polity. I fear they won't, and that is as a big a problem as the ones facing the Democrats, about which I shall write tomorrow.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here