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How great a danger does Donald Trump pose to his own party?

Image credit: National Public Radio [NPR] / Getty Images
Image credit: National Public Radio [NPR] / Getty Images
Image credit: National Public Radio [NPR] / Getty Images
Behind the enthusiastic attacks on their political rivals and their power within the American federal government, something threatens to tear the Republican Party apart.

A number of high-profile Republicans did not attend the 2016 Convention in Cleveland: John McCain and Mitt Romney, the presidential candidates in the 2008 and 2012 contests; George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, two previous Presidents; and fellow leadership rivals such as John Kasich.

Indeed, the number of Republicans offering their full-throated support for nominee Donald Trump is small. Many would rather side with him than the Democrat rival. “Donald Trump wasn’t my first choice. He wasn’t my second or third or fourth choice,” Patrick Toomey, the Senator for Pennsylvania, admitted earlier this year. Rand Paul, a Senator and unsuccessful nomination candidate, said that he would always support the nominee whoever it was.

Other Republicans aren’t so afraid of voicing their discontent. Two Representatives, Scott Rigell and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have indicated that their vote will be for a third party. Ted Cruz, who fought for the nomination, failed to clearly endorse the candidate in his Convention speech, speaking instead about the prevailing values of the party. Shortly afterwards he clarified that he is “not in the habit of supporting people who attack [his] wife and attack [his] father.” Senator Jeff Flake didn’t hear that speech in person: he’d rather mow his lawn than go to Cleveland.

Evidently, many top Republicans do not want much association with the nominee at the moment.

The Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States has committed innumerable political blunders and holds many contentious positions on current affairs. Donald Trump’s policies,from his commitment to building a wall to separate the United States from Mexico (and have the Mexican government pay for it) to his “complete and total shutdown” of immigration from Muslim countries, are mocked worldwide.

Every candidate commits a blunder – no one is perfect. Donald Trump has made many mistakes and offended a lot of people, more than the average political figurehead. But there is more to the internal division brewing within the Republican party than Trump’s penchant for embarrassment.

The Grand Old Party could have become an extreme free-market machine. The Tea Party movement has been chasing the mainstream Republicans politicians for several years, calling for the Republican party to adopt even more conservative principles. Politically the Tea Party movement seeks even lower taxes, a drastically smaller state and ‘traditional family values’ to permeate American society. In its fifteen “non-negotiable core beliefs,” the Tea Party states that the ability to own a firearm is “sacred,” the need to reduce corporation tax is “mandatory” and that English must be the core language of America. Some well-known conservative figures, including Ted Cruz, arguably the largest competitor for the Republican nomination, align themselves with the movement.

But to the surprise of most commentators, the Tea Party movement is not leading the Republican charge. In fact, Donald Trump does not sing from the same hymn sheet as the Republicans, let alone the Tea Party. Previously, Trump has donated money to both Democrat and Republican campaigns. He is not a politician by profession, something that has given him a tremendous appeal to those who distrust the so-called establishment and Republican elite, but the fact that the party figurehead is not a fully committed Republican has made many leading Republicans feel uncomfortable.

“Is he even a conservative?”many ask. Trump’s beliefs could be seen as conservative albeit of a much older vintage than current Republicans: his ‘America-first’ economic policy can be traced back to the protectionist attitudes of American governments in the 19th century, working to shield businesses and industries in their early stages from overseas competitors.

Nonetheless, Trump does not share the same priorities as other party members. Other Republican candidates sought smaller taxes, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and less regulation; Trump looks for protectionism, nationalism and isolationist foreign policy. Republicans are enthusiastic about the Constitution, Christianity and citizens’ rights (or, ‘guns, God and gays’ to some comics), but Trump prefers to talk about China, closing down parts of the Internet and forcing companies to hire American citizens before anyone else.

It is a proud characteristic of American conservatism to celebrate America’s liberties and position in global affairs. Some, such as Dennis Prager, a seasoned conservative commentator, attribute a focus on the country’s problems and dark moments in its history with the American political left. Donald Trump, however, takes that position: he sees a broken America and promises to “make America great again,” as his slogan reads.

Clearly, Trump and the Republican elite differ widely in policy and approach. It is highly unlikely that the candidate will have a huge change of heart prior to the election; how will Trump’s politics affect the Grand Old Party?

Donald Trump could win the presidential contest. Some polls suggest he holds enough support from the American electorate to enter the White House. Should this happen, the Republican Party will be back in government, but the direction of the Trump presidency will be hazy. However, this could be the opportunity for the Republican Party’s ideology to adapt and evolve, recognising the desires of the American public and accommodating them with the party’s core values.

Alternatively, Trump could lose – pretty badly, too. This might be the final moments of the party as we see it today: the divide between the Republican elite, favouring neoclassical capitalist economics, individual liberties and Christianity, and the disenfranchised electorate, who despise the establishment, its elitism and its shortcomings, will be crystal clear. If ‘Trumpism’ continues after Trump’s presidential defeat, the Republican Party will need to sacrifice a lot of the positions it holds dear in order to appeal to voters. To some this would mean the emergence of a nationalist, protectionist and vehemently anti-Islam party.

Trump’s conservatism is far out of kilter from the Republican ideology that has been evolving since the time of Ronald Reagan. His candidacy, successful or not, could be a moment of evolution in the American conservative movement; or it could symbolise the implosion of American conservatism altogether.