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Has Donald Trump Permanently Altered The Republican Party's DNA?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters in Akron, Ohio, on Aug. 22.
Angelo Merendino
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters in Akron, Ohio, on Aug. 22.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is giving his adopted party a lot to think about. He has offered radically different approaches to trade, immigration, the size of government and national defense.

Now Republicans are debating whether, win or lose, Donald Trump has permanently altered their party's DNA.

Here are 4 questions that Republicans are grappling with:

1. Is Trump unique? Or is there such a thing as Trumpism?

This is the fundamental chicken-and-egg question for Republicans. Did Donald Trump take over the Republican Party only because he's a billionaire reality TV celebrity who knew better than anyone, ever, how to dominate the media? Or did this all exist already within the party and is there such a thing as Trumpism that will live on regardless of whether Trump himself becomes president?

Rather than making the Republican Party different, Trump is reflecting a Republican Party that's already changed.

Some Republicans, like hotly anti-Trump Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson, think Trump is one of a kind, a black-swan candidate. Wilson, who is an outspoken "Never Trumper" — he's running the campaign of independent candidate Evan McMullin — points to Sen. Marco Rubio's primary victory in Florida this week. Carlos Beruff, Rubio's opponent, was a multi-multimillionaire developer who ran as a Trump mini-me. As Wilson puts it, Beruff had the "tough-guy swagger: build the wall, ship them home, that whole act," but Rubio ended up beating him by the curvature of the earth.

That, says Wilson, proves that without Trump the man, Trumpism falls flat. "Without the showmanship, the TV star personality," Wilson said, "Trumpism is a dead letter."

Of course, Rubio was the incumbent with very high name identification. And other Republicans say Trump has tapped into something very real in the GOP that's not going away anytime soon. Gary Bauer, a conservative activist and a Trump supporter, said rather than making the Republican Party different, Trump is reflecting a Republican Party that has already changed.

As the Washington establishment grew increasingly out of touch with its voter base, Trump, Bauer said, "understood where our votes were coming from. And I'm still fairly optimistic he's going to win. But whatever happens, I think it's going to be very hard for the Republican Party to go back to the agenda that it had before."

The agenda it had before didn't care much about preserving Social Security or keeping young people out of endless foreign wars. It was an agenda, Bauer contended, that left out the working class, who are now the base of the Republican Party.

2. If Trumpism is here to stay, what does that mean for the GOP?

Whatever happens, I think it's going to be very hard for the Republican Party to go back to the agenda that it had before.

If Trumpism is here to stay, it means the GOP is no longer a Bush party, or even a Paul Ryan party. It is no longer a party of entitlement reform, nation-building and big trade deals.

It's a conservative populist party, oriented toward the white, working class rather than Wall Street or even the Chamber of Commerce. And if Trump were to continue to bleed educated whites, it would mean it's no longer a party of suburban white voters, which have been traditionally a critical group to the GOP.

And that raises the next obvious question...

3. Can a Trumpist GOP win national elections?

If Trumpism is going to succeed at the ballot box, it has to have a broader appeal. Trump could still turn things around and win this November, but his lagging poll numbers nationally and in battleground states reflect how much his raw appeal to white identity politics has alienated young people, Hispanics, suburban women and college-educated voters. Those demographics are growing as a share of the electorate.

Trump's base, on the other hand — the white working class — is shrinking.

Wilson is worried about the damage Trump has already done to the Republican brand. Even if there won't be another billionaire reality TV celebrity running for president in the Republican Party any time soon, Wilson points to Trump's and the party's poor favorabilityamong African-Americans and Hispanics. Trump has also hurt support for Republicans among college-educated professionals, white women and Catholics.

"He's essentially wrecked the GOP coalition," Wilson said.

Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham doesn't buy that.

"I see the Republican Party as a conservative party that has a stronger populist strain than it's had since the Bushes," Ingraham said. "That's what I see. And I think that agenda will appeal to a broader range of Americans as time goes on."

Whether the party, though, can have that broader appeal might depend on whether it's possible to separate Trumpism from Trump's own racial rhetoric.

Ben Domenech, the founder and publisher of The Federalist, asks: "If you break Trumpism away from some of the toxic comments about immigrants, some of the race-baiting comments, at least when it comes to birtherism — if you break it away from that, does it still have the same appeal?"

That depends on the priorities of Trump's supporters — who made up a plurality of Republican primary voters. One of the most stunning revelations of this election cycle was just how much the Republican establishment misunderstood its own base.

The leadership of the party and its donor class, Domenech said, "thought their base was a bunch of ideologically conservative people who could be controlled in the same way you control a brush fire: controlled burns in controlled areas to keep it from going everywhere."

But it turned out the base — or a least a significant portion of it — wasn't very ideological at all. They were people who felt they were being screwed — by immigrants, by Wall Street, by elites in general. They wanted someone to look out for them and they believe Trump understands them in a way Republican leaders do not.

Even if Trump doesn't win in November, his voters are not going away. Republicans will have to find out if they can continue to engage these voters without the nativist, sometimes racist, rhetoric that makes it impossible for a Trumpist GOP to broaden its appeal. Just like Trump himself has tried to do in the last two weeks — with limited to no success — future Republican presidential candidates will try to make Trumpism more broadly acceptable without alienating the voters Trump has activated, because the Republican Party also needs them to win.

Whether it's possible to sand down the rough edges of Trumpism without losing Trump's base is unclear. If Trump wins, he'll remake the GOP in his own unconventional image. If he loses, there will be a contentious internal debate about what Trump and Trumpism mean for the GOP.

4. How has Trump already complicated that debate?

True to form, Trump has guaranteed that the debate about the GOP's future will be complicated and very difficult. That's because Trump has said that the only way he can lose is if the election is stolen from him.

"If he's already setting up the storyline after the election to be one of a stolen or rigged election," said former Congressman Vin Weber, "then there's not any analysis that can be used to shed light on where the Republican Party ought to go, because his supporters will say simply, 'We don't need to make any changes. We just need to get rid of those elements that so-called stole the election.' "

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.