The emergence of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee further exposes the multiple fault lines that have been causing tremors throughout the GOP for at least the last decade.
Trump’s success in being the last man standing brings the daily mudslinging that marked the GOP primary to a merciful end. But awarding him the nomination does little to resolve the internal tensions in the Republican Party that facilitated his success in seizing the nomination against the wishes of virtually the entire party leadership. Trump has won the nomination, but the fight to define the Republican Party will continue.
This is not to say that Trump’s success was entirely some kind of structural accident, or that it will have no impact on the future of the party. Trump brings a powerful set of assets to his candidacy – celebrity, wealth, self-promotion skills, combative communication style – that have contributed mightily to making him a potential agent of change in the party.
Yet Trump’s assets and the anguish he has caused Republican elites notwithstanding, understanding the near-term prospects of the Republican Party requires recognizing that Trump’s success is much more an expression of the tensions in the Republican Party than it is a cause of them.
Trump has masterfully picked spots where both media attention and votes could be found, but without much regard to either Republican orthodoxies or the party’s long-term strategic needs – at least as envisioned by the party’s organizational leadership.
From his embrace of restrictive policies on immigration to his America First foreign policy, he has adopted positions (accompanied by often inflammatory rhetoric) that put blocs of the GOP rank and file in direct conflict with significant GOP interests at the commanding heights of the party. Trade wars, nativism and pulling out of foreign alliances have played well to the primary voters that he needed to build an electoral plurality in a crowded field.
However Trump is unlikely to persuade the more globally connected international business interests that are central to the donor base and leadership of the Republican Party, or the more secular and cosmopolitan Republican voters who have not been heard much during the primary season.
Trump thus inherits the mantle of a party whose most important organizational and financial interests view him at best as a freakish instance of unintended consequences. And at worst as a destructive interloper forced on them by the baser elements of their coalition.
As Trump’s rise has become more of a reality, the organizational establishment of the Republican Party began shifting attention and resources from winning the White House to building a firewall around GOP majorities in Congress – yet another sign of division in the party and dismay at the prospects of Trump at the top of the GOP ticket.
There will be many more efforts at uniting the party now that the long, strange GOP primary has effectively ended, but Trump’s active exploitation of existing divisions and his combative tactics have made reuniting the party for the general election more difficult than usual. Trump has promised his supporters that he will build a beautiful wall if he’s elected president. He’s been silent, though, on how good he is with bridges – especially ones he’s burned.
James Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project and a lecturer of government at The University of Texas at Austin.