Donald Trump exploded upon the political scene as a strongly charged individual, not as the head of a faction of the Republican Party or of a movement of his own. The great question, from the moment he announced his candidacy for the presidency, has been what effect he might have on the party whose candidate he was seeking to become. While many of his admirers supported him simply for himself, others backed him in the hope that, whether successful in his bid for the White House or not, Trump would reshape the GOP by making it the true and effective opposition to the Democratic Party radicalized over eight years by Barack Obama. Ten days into the new administration (at the time of this writing), it seems he could be poised to do that.
Trump’s Cabinet is shaping up as a responsibly conservative group of men whose disagreements, carefully managed by the President to his ultimate advantage, are mostly based on conservative principle. Trump has so far kept the neoconservatives beyond arm’s length. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who treated Trump during the primary season as an irresponsible wild man and the antithesis of everything the Republican Party stands for, is now an enthusiastic backer of The Wall, claiming it to be essential to national security, and he has described the President’s plan for a border-adjusted tax as “responsible nationalism”—a long step to the right by a man previously committed to globalized trade and mass immigration. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also supports The Wall, and has pledged to cooperate with the President and Congress in allocating the funds to proceed with the project. Speaker Ryan has promised that the Republicans in the House and Senate are working with the White House on a 200-day plan to develop an agenda for the new administration. The Department of Homeland Security has said it is determined to enforce the President’s order temporarily suspending arrivals from designated countries, despite mayhem by the left. The President’s program of internal improvements, which is supported by many Republican legislators as well as by Democratic ones, has an anodyne effect. While Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain continue to snipe at Trump, the absence of Republican opposition to the President’s stand on immigration, illegal aliens, and sanctuary cities suggests that they have privately favored his positions for years, though lacking the courage to advocate them. And Trump’s stated intention to curb the federal regulatory agencies and his decision to proceed toward construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines is welcome across the Republican spectrum.
While the Republican Party has never been known for its brains, it has a solid reputation for flexibility (a polite word), which, in the Age of Trump, may allow it to thrive and even to prosper. Reince Priebus, formerly the head of the Republican National Committee and now the White House Chief of Staff, embodies this flexibility (or instinct for survival). In defeating Hillary Clinton and delivering all three branches of the federal government to the GOP, Trump accomplished what no other Republican candidate has done since 2001—and before that, in 70 years—and what none of his 16 opponents in the primary could likely have accomplished. For that reason alone they owe him a debt of gratitude and a huge measure of respect—and the humility to heed the message that gave him his victory. Finally, on the night of November 8, Donald Trump’s fortunes instantly became the Republican Party’s. Just as the President cannot afford to fail, the party that nominated him cannot afford his failure either. What works for him will work for them, and what worked so spectacularly last year was not the feckless self-serving Republicanism of yore. President Trump has got his administration off to a very strong start by sticking to his guns, and the future of his party depends on his finishing just as strongly—as he began it, on his own terms. Though by 2020, it might well not be the same party.