As I write this, Donald Trump is losing support among women, which will probably cost him the election. Because the country remains rather evenly divided between the two major parties, a very lopsided outcome is unlikely in the popular vote, although more likely in the electoral college. My guess is that Trump will end up with about 40% and Clinton with about 50%, but that difference will be enough to give Clinton a decisive electoral college win.
As Trump has lost support, more Republican leaders have tried to distance themselves from him. They want this to be his defeat alone, not really a defeat for the party. He’s not really a Republican, you see, and so the party can kiss him goodbye and move on. Democrats are more interested in tying Trump to the party, so if he sinks like a stone he will take other Republicans down with him. Last week, President Obama described Trump as just putting his own brand name on some old Republican ideas, just as he puts his name on buildings built by somebody else.
On most issues, I see a lot of similarity between Trump’s positions and those that Republicans have taken in the past. There are also some differences, but they are often due to Trump’s emphasis on themes that today’s Republican leaders would like to play down, especially white male resistance to the ascendancy of women and minorities. The party got a lot of mileage out of those themes in the past, but that train is running out of steam. Trump and his supporters are keeping it going, and that makes it hard for the G.O.P. to treat his candidacy like a foolish affair that can be quickly forgotten.
To elaborate the similarities and differences between “Trumpism” and Republicanism, consider several different kinds of conservatism: economic, foreign policy, social and cultural.
Republican orthodoxy in this area calls for limited government intervention in the economy, reliance on free markets, low corporate and personal taxes, minimal economic regulation, and support for international trade.
Donald Trump supports quite a bit of this. He wants an end to many regulations and a moratorium on new ones. He supports additional tax cuts, especially for corporations and the wealthy, which he expects to boost economic growth for all, in traditional “trickle-down” fashion. He is more comfortable than most fiscal conservatives with borrowing to support federal spending, especially on infrastructure projects. This departs more from what conservatives say than what they actually do, since Republican economic policies since Reagan have not generated enough tax revenue to avoid deficits anyway.
The biggest difference is on trade. Republicans have been the strongest supporters of the free-trade agreements that Trump now condemns. Traditionally, Republicans have emphasized the advantages of trade for American businesses, such as access to foreign markets and to inexpensive labor, materials and components. Trump would put higher tariffs on foreign goods to protect domestic manufacturers and their workers from foreign competition. This protectionism appeals particularly to vulnerable blue-collar workers, a traditional Democratic constituency.
Foreign policy conservatism
Republican “neocons” generally support strong political and military U.S. engagement with the rest of the world. This is partly a matter of economic self-interest, such as a desire for Middle Eastern oil. But it is also based on the argument that the world’s strongest democracy should be actively engaged in spreading democracy around the world.
Donald Trump has been more critical of foreign wars. He claims to have always been against the Iraq war, although he voiced at least cautious support for it when it started. On the other hand, he claims to have the best plan for defeating ISIS, without saying what it is. While he seems more interested in bombing terrorists than opposing Russian expansionism, he is certainly no foreign policy dove. His support for massive military spending is very Republican. He has also taken a very hard line favoring Israel over the Palestinians, in contrast to President Obama’s more balanced position.
On hot-button social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, Trump has not taken very clear and consistent positions. He is currently pro-life, although he has been pro-choice in the past. Early in the campaign he even said that women who have abortions should be punished, but he quickly backtracked. He has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.
Gay rights have not gotten much attention in this campaign, perhaps because the issue of same-sex marriage has been settled by the Supreme Court. However, Trump has selected as his running mate a Christian conservative known for his hostility to gay rights. As Indiana’s governor, Pence supported a law that would allow businesses to refuse service to gay customers, as a matter of individual conscience.
Trump has the support of most Christian conservatives, although some are now breaking with him over his sexual remarks and alleged sexual aggression.
By cultural conservatism I mean especially white nationalism, or resistance to the ascendancy of African Americans, Latinos and other cultural minorities. I would also include male resistance to the rights claimed by women. Many Trump supporters are women, but they tend to be less educated women who do not identify as strongly with feminism or with career women like Hillary Clinton.
Cultural conservatism is at the core of the Trump phenomenon. His campaign began with a strong “build the wall” anti-immigration stance. Now it appears to be ending with insults against women and allegations of sexual mistreatment of women. After having been recorded boasting about sexual aggression, Trump is in the awkward position of attacking the women who accuse him of doing precisely the things he boasted about.
Trump has also insulted African Americans by stereotyping their neighborhoods as nothing but slums full of poverty, crime and violence. He claims they are worse off than ever before because of Democratic policies (Republicans apparently having no complicity in perpetuating our racial problems). So they have “nothing to lose” by voting for him, although he has put forth no policy program except a vague appeal to “law and order” and a return to “stop and frisk” policies that have been ruled unconstitutional.
How much of this can be called Republican? Well, aside from the sexual aggression, quite a bit. Ever since the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights and women’s rights, the Republican Party has been the refuge for those opposing those movements. It has been the party of the “Southern strategy,” “law and order,” and resistance to the Equal Rights Amendment and affirmative action.
On immigration, the G.O.P. has been divided for some time. The business wing of the party has wanted access to immigrant labor, but the cultural wing of the party has wanted strict limits on immigration and deportation of anyone arriving illegally. Neither wing has been particularly enthusiastic about paths to citizenship, perhaps because immigrants without civil rights are easier for businesses to exploit.
After the last presidential election, the Republican National Committee recognized the need to broaden the party by appealing more to minorities and women. Obviously, Donald Trump has failed to do that, not because his views are so novel, but because they are so depressingly familiar! In many ways, he has just been more outspoken about things that many Republicans have believed for a long time.
Weakening the party
Every candidate is different, and Donald Trump may depart more from the Republican norm than most. But take away the outrageous personality and the disgusting treatment of women, and the policy differences are not so remarkable. Many of them are matters of degree or emphasis: more emphasis on the costs rather than the benefits of trade and immigration, more emphasis on fighting terrorism and less on fighting for democracy around the world, more emphasis on perpetuating old stereotypes and attitudes and less on addressing the concerns of women and minorities.
Most Republican leaders now recognize that the Trump candidacy has been a setback for the party. When they consider what to do about it, however, they face a real dilemma. If they reject too much of what Trump represents, they can alienate a lot of Republican voters. But if they don’t reject enough of what Trump represents, they can damage the Republican brand for a long time. The Party needs to rebrand itself as more than the party of angry white men, while at the same time not alienating too much of their base. This will take a while to sort out, and in the meantime popular support for Republicans will probably suffer.