Trump's Speech Signalled the End of an Era for the GOP

Image: Donald Trump at CPAC. Photo by Michael Vadon, CC BY-SA 2.0.

He broke with Republican doctrines on many key issues.

An era ended for the Republican Party Thursday night with the delivery of Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the GOP’s Cleveland convention. The old era began when Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and, in doing so, explicitly rejected the Eastern GOP establishment that had dominated the party for decades. Few realized at the time that the Goldwater nomination would usher in a new Republican era anchored in the rising South and West. Most pols and commentators back then thought the hapless Goldwater represented nothing more than a passing blip on the radar screen of politics.

But in truth the Goldwater nomination dealt a crushing blow to the old establishment and presaged a new party with new political sensibilities, new pools of support and new regional and ideological roots. Goldwater went down to a humiliating defeat, but the Republican Party rose to higher levels of strength and reach.

Now that party is over, killed by Trump’s capture of it and by his resolve to reshape and redirect it based upon a new vision of political opportunity spawned by fast-changing national and global realities. Trump made clear that, if elected, he will govern as no Republican has governed before. And, if he is defeated, he still has redefined the party. Like Goldwater, he is far more than a mere radar blip. There will be no going back.

Cable television commentators were quick to label the speech as “pessimistic,” “angry” and “ominous-sounding.” The New York Times rushed into print with a lead paragraph suggesting Trump’s message was designed to salve his followers’ yearnings for “extreme” measures. An interesting adjective, that. It’s the same word directed at Goldwater in 1964 by party stalwarts clinging to the status quo of that time.

In truth, the Trump speech, far from extreme, merely put forth one plausible interpretation of what ails America at a time when polls suggest that nearly two-thirds of its citizens believe the country is on the wrong track. That interpretation got him the nomination from people who aren’t looking for extremism so much as a credible and realistic view of the state of the country. That’s what Trump gave them. It may not be the nation’s majority view, but it is now the Republican view.

The new Republican view is a populist view. This is not a party with a strong populist heritage. Under William McKinley in the 1890s, it successfully nullified the fiery populism of William Jennings Bryan. It served as establishment party during the 1920s and was the party of big business in the Eisenhower years. Reagan manifested tinges of populism in the 1980s with his rhetoric extolling the capacity of ordinary Americans to order their own lives without interference from governmental mandarins, but that quickly dissipated with the emergence of the two Bush presidents, Herbert Walker and George W., whose political impulses always seemed to be largely establishmentarian.

Not Trump’s. He rails against the country’s elites, whom he accuses of having hijacked the country’s political system to their own ends. “America is a nation of believers, dreamers, and strivers,” he declared, “that is being led by a group of censors, critics, and cynics.” He called for a major adjustment in the country’s political balance of power. “No longer,” he said, “can we rely on those elites in media, and politics, who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place.”

The rigged system was a central motif of Trump’s speech. “I have joined the political arena,” he said, “so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves.” He cited, as Exhibit A, Hillary Clinton, whom he portrayed as a master of manipulating the levers of government to her own political and financial benefit. “Big business, elite media and major donors,” he said, “are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place.”

Note the inclusion of big business among the elite institutions in Trump’s sights. This isn’t the kind of rhetoric that has propelled candidates to the Republican nomination in the past. Thus, it represents a major departure for the party.

Another departure is Trump’s explicit attack on globalism and embrace of nationalism. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” he says. This represented yet another major departure from the party of the past.

Nothing reflects this new direction more starkly than the electoral fate of Jeb Bush, the last scion of a dynastic family whose members over three generations held positions as U.S. senator, U.S. representative, state governor (two states), and president (three terms), not to mention special envoy to China, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and CIA director. Trump dispatched the last Bush so quickly that the hapless Floridian hardly seemed to know what hit him. What hit him was the sentiment of large numbers of Republicans that Jeb Bush’s brand of status-quo politics was strangling America.

Consider his views on immigration. Bush suggested in 2014 that illegal immigration “shouldn’t rile people up” because those crossing into America illegally were doing so out of “an act of love” toward their families, who are better off as American illegals than they would be in their native lands. Thus did Bush signal unmistakably that he simply didn’t take seriously the problem of illegal immigration.