Because the amalgam of economic, social and foreign policy conservatisms that has defined the party for decades is now under the control of a thrice-married New Yorker who’s threatened to tear up trade agreements and suggested cutting back on the U.S. commitment to NATO.
“We’re going to have to broaden the definition of conservative,” allowed one top Republican National Committee member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He likened a political party to a kaleidoscope, changing colors and patterns depending on who was rotating it. “Trump has turned the kaleidoscope 180 degrees, so that pattern is going to evolve radically.”
Trump has spoken casually during his 17-month campaign about imposing tariffs on products made by companies that move manufacturing jobs abroad. He has talked about the need to protect Social Security and Medicare entitlements. And he hardly spoke at all about same-sex marriage or accommodations for transgender people.
All go against what had been orthodoxy for the Republican Party, right up until Trump accepted the nomination this summer. His voters, a significant plurality of the GOP base, apparently didn’t care.
“What Donald Trump has done is to deliver to the Republican coalition a large class of working-class voters with populist attitudes. They are populist attitudes, not populist policies,” the RNC member said. He added that many Trump supporters have shaped their politics based on anger about their circumstances and a perceived lack of interest from “coastal elites” in the issues they care about. “Middle America, middle class, middle finger.”
Ramesh Ponnuru, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said conservatives will still have a strong influence within the Republican Party, and its defining mission will be that it’s not the liberal Democratic Party.
Beyond that: “I think it’s up for grabs.”
Ponnuru noted that the populist, anti-immigration tone is not unique to Trump. Both former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have pushed those themes in their own presidential runs. Santorum frequently spoke about how the party had to cater less to business owners and more to ordinary wage workers.
When the consensus view among most Republican leaders was that Trump would lose the election, a big question was who would lead the party in the coming years. Current Chairman Reince Priebus said he was interested in another term, but was likely to have faced challengers, particularly if Trump had lost by a wide margin.
Now, Priebus is under consideration for a high-level role at the White House, possibly chief of staff. Also important: Running the RNC when the party holds the White House offers far less autonomy than when it does not. Trump will be the de facto leader of the party, regardless of who winds up chairman.
In any case, the 168 RNC members will not vote to choose their next chairman until their winter meeting on Jan. 18-19 in Washington. Each state and U.S. territory has three vote: one each from its chair and male and female committee members.