The tensions at the 2016 Republican National Convention aren’t like those typically seen at the party’s divided gatherings: Teddy Roosevelt challenging the hierarchy in 1912; or the moderates versus conservatives, Dwight Eisenhower against Robert Taft in 1952, or 12 years later, Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, then Ronald Reagan taking on President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Republicans are meeting in Cleveland to anoint their presidential nominee amid deep schisms: Never have so many of the party’s prominent governors, senators, House members and, most conspicuously, former presidents and presidential candidates, avoided the quadrennial forum. But ideology is secondary.
Donald Trump has rolled over the party’s right-wing activists, mainstream moderates and policy-centric lawmakers such as House Speaker Paul Ryan or Utah Sen. Mike Lee. The discussion in Cleveland and around the country is about the future of party: Is this election an aberration, or could Republicans go the way of the Whigs a century and a half ago?
Even if Trump turns out to be a unique phenomenon, one reality strikes analysts: “There is a real gap between Republican voters and Republican leaders,” notes Alan Abramowitz, a political science at Emory University who specializes in political parties.
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The two finalists for the nomination, Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, were the most vehement — at times vitriolic — in denouncing party leaders. And relations between the party’s nominee and its most prominent leader, House Speaker Ryan, remain fraught with tension.
It’s not clear how this will play out. “The big question confronting the American system after this election is: Will there be an open conservative Republican Party and a left-of-center collectivist Democratic Party or also a right-wing authoritarian party?” says Vin Weber, a top Republican strategist and former congressman.
Some argue that the problem could become even more acute if Trump wins the presidency and then tries to reshape the party in his mold: protectionist, anti-immigration, isolationist, more populist on economics and only selectively supportive of Wall Street and financial markets.
“It would be four years of upsetting the apple cart most every day,” says Fred Davis, a Republican strategist.
If Trump loses — which many Republicans expect, despite narrowing poll numbers — the dynamics change but may be equally complicated.
The party’s longstanding consensus about cutting spending, taxes and regulation — and the veneration of Reagan, who left office more than a quarter-century ago — has run its course. Can Ryan and a handful of policy-centric senators help craft a new agenda that will appeal to the rank and file?
That not only is substantively difficult but also a political challenge.
“The dirty little secret is that a lot of members of Congress have little interest in policy,” laments Kate O’Beirne, a conservative policy advocate.
Alternatively, Cruz, who is already planning for post-Trump Republican politics, embraces elements of the billionaire’s message while shaping it to better energize the right wing.
Some political scientists such as Abramowitz say this season may be an exception, pointing to Republican strength in Congress and state houses around the country.
Weber isn’t sure they’re right but sees their case: “If Trump loses, the party probably can adjust like after Goldwater,” he says. “Trade protectionism and immigration-bashing will be very challenging, but we can rebuild, maybe adjust constituencies a little. Then we could come back powerfully in the 2018 midterm elections.”