President Trump may have finally broken the back of the old-guard Republican establishment that's controlled the party since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Since Trump launched his campaign three years ago this month, this establishment has weathered an incredible storm and somehow managed, barely, to hold onto power. Some have already quit or (like House Speaker Paul Ryan) are planning to retire earlier than anyone would have predicted before the Trump insurgency began. Many others have done their best to assimilate themselves to the new order, swallowing evidence of corruption, expressions of racism and nativism, and heterodoxy on a range of policies (especially trade) that they'd never have dreamed of accepting, let alone endorsing, as recently as the spring of 2015.
But Trump's tweeted attack Tuesday morning on motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson (for planning to move some of its operations overseas to avoid the retaliatory tariffs Europe has imposed in response to the administration's trade policies) may be more than this beleaguered establishment can ultimately bear.
That's the president of the United States practicing outright economic nationalism, calling on a business enterprise to put country over profits, threatening it with punitive taxes, and suggesting that the president's supporters will stop buying the company's products as punishment for its behavior. More than immigration restrictions, more than the imposition of trade tariffs, this degree of presidential meddling in the economic affairs of a business flies in the face of longstanding Republican principles. This is hardly the worst thing Trump has done — but it may be the thing that most aggressively and directly undermines GOP economic orthodoxy.
Can Republicans possibly countenance this?
If they do, they will show that they've finally transformed themselves into Trump clones across the board. If they don't, then it's likely they will be tossed out before long by the party's voters, who have yet to show any significant sign of resistance to, and have displayed quite a lot of enthusiasm for, Trump's nationalist makeover of the party.
Either way, the party's old-time institutional establishment has finally reached its terminus.
As David Brooks has pointed out, the GOP long ago surrendered to "market fundamentalism," an outlook "that makes economic growth society's prime value." That's why more Republicans have spoken out against the president's protectionist trade policies than they have against his racism, xenophobia, incompetence, flagrant corruption, or constant stream of lies — because standing against free markets takes aim at the core of what the party stands for, which is the conviction that everyone benefits when individuals and businesses are left free to pursue profits with a minimum of coercion or constraint.
Or at least that's what the party's leadership would like it to stand for.
When it comes to the tens of millions of Americans who identify as Republicans and reliably show up to vote for the party's candidates for office, the story is more muddled. For much of the past four decades, Republican voters cast ballots for politicians who toed the market fundamentalist line. But beginning with the lukewarm enthusiasm for Mitt Romney and his message of entrepreneurial deference (get government out of the way and let the makers do their economic magic), the voters began to show that, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, they were willing to listen to other arguments.
Trump made those arguments. For a mainstream Republican, the message was wildly off-sides, resembling the kind of claims one would expect to hear from the anti-liberal left:
The system is rigged to benefit the powerful. (I should know because I'm one of them.) We need to put America first — in foreign policy, where we need to stop caring about fixing problems in other places, and also in economic policy, where we need to put the government's thumb on the scale in favor of American businesses, and especially in favor of those businesses that provide good jobs to those who toil below the level of the managerial class. That means tariffs. That means fighting back against those around the world who steal our intellectual property. And that means browbeating American firms that place their own economic benefit ahead of the interests of American workers.
Trump didn't usually use language that was quite so clear and explicit. But the message was nonetheless obvious. And now, after a first year in office during which the president's staff did its best to rein in Trump's nationalist instincts on multiple fronts, that message is shaping administration policy on immigration and trade — and dictating how the president communicates to and about specific businesses: Keep jobs in this country — or else.
Put in somewhat different terms, the president believes that businesses and the people who run them should put the good of the county and their fellow citizens ahead of their own pursuit of profits — which of course presumes that the country and our fellow citizens don't automatically benefit from businesses pursuing profits above all other considerations.
That's Trump's Republican heresy — and one that Republican voters show every sign of accepting. (Trump began talking about imposing tariffs months ago, and yet he continues to enjoy historically high own-party approval for this point in his presidency.) Which means that the party is now entirely his — and the establishment that at first feebly resisted and then reluctantly and selectively embraced him out of expediency has been soundly defeated. Its remnants make a lot of noise from their perches in the media. But they have lost their hold over the party and, more decisively, over its voters.
The Republican Party has been thoroughly Trumpified, and there's no reason to assume the transformation can or will be reversed.