On February 27, 2016, then-candidate Marco Rubio tweeted, “Donald Trump will never be the nominee of the party of Lincoln and Reagan. #NeverTrump.” Even back then, the senator’s words rang hollow since Trump was trouncing Rubio in the polls. With Trump officially accepted on Tuesday as his party’s nominee, and endorsed by countless party leaders including Rubio, the tweet looks even more delusional. Party of Lincoln? Party of Reagan? The GOP hasn’t been that for years. It was slowly transforming even before the demagogic businessman began his run for office. Now, the process is complete. The Republican Party has become the Party of Trump, and it will never be the same.
The Trumpification of the GOP could be heard in the voices of the delegates as they not just enthusiastically nominated Trump, but echoed his rhetoric about “Making America Great Again” and “Crooked Hillary.” Trumpification can be found in party stalwarts such as RNC Co-Chair Sharon Day, who said of Hillary Clinton on Tuesday: “As first lady, you viciously attacked the character of women who were abused at the hands of your husband.” Arguing that Bill Clinton is a rapist is common among Trumpian agitators like Roger Stone and Alex Jones, but now it’s become the official doctrine of party officials. And it was a Trumpified political party that kept yelling “lock her up” as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie assumed the role of a prosecutor laying down the case against Clinton.
Trump likes to claim that his campaign isn’t just about himself, but is now a “movement” beyond his control. This is accurate. While Trump has displayed remarkable political instincts in figuring out what GOP voters wanted in their heart of hearts, he hasn’t created those voters. To borrow a distinction from the philosopher Sidney Hook, Trump is not an event-making man so much as an eventful one: a man who caught the rising tide of a moment.
The rising tide that Trump caught was a wave of anger within a GOP base that is infuriated by the direction America is heading in and by the way party elites promise to reverse trends like Obamacare, but never do. Among these angry GOP voters, it’s an article of faith that Democratic presidents have no legitimacy, that the Clintons are corrupt and Obama is a foreigner. What makes the base implacably petulant is the fact that these illegitimate politicians keep winning elections. And the best explanation for why they win is that the GOP elite is craven, that they were unwilling to challenge Obama on his supposed foreign birth or to jail the Clintons for their corruption.
For these voters, who to judge by the primaries are a plurality of the GOP, Trump is a hero because he showed a boldness the regular party leaders lacked. He made a splash in 2011 as a birther and kept talking about “Crooked Hillary.” All the Trumpian antics that made respectable conservatives like Jeb Bush and Rubio cringe, all the insults and name-calling, feed into his appeal because they showed he was a man who didn’t respect the prissy rules that helped illegitimate politicians win the White House.
And now with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Trump’s approach to politics has become squarely mainstream in his party. The Trumpification of the GOP is not likely to go away soon. It’s rooted in some fundamental demographic facts that the party has been struggling with for decades: that it’s increasingly a party of old white people in a nation that is becoming more diverse. Even if Trump loses by a blowout in November, the party is likely to become even more Trumpified because the #NeverTrump people will have left the party—or at least become inactive—while the politicians and activists who are most responsive to his message will have stayed on. That’s how Barry Goldwater conservatism continued to be a force after his epic defeat of 1964, and it’s likely to replicate itself with Trumpism. Like it or not, the GOP will be the Party of Trump for many years to come.