Befitting a man who came from a television genre in which contrived situations carefully edited to tell stories are referred to as "reality," Donald Trump is in the process of creating his own reality for his party. We should be profoundly concerned about the way in which Trump not only lies but encourages his supporters to believe the lies he tells. But can he actually remake the Republican Party in the process, to change its very identity and ideology?
Consider this: Donald Trump is making the GOP, the party of Cold Warriors from Nixon to Reagan and beyond, into the most pro-Russian party we've seen in generations, if ever. Not only has Trump surrounded himself with advisers friendly to the Russian government, he himself praised Vladimir Putin again and again during the campaign, and now refuses to believe the consensus of the American intelligence community that Russia intervened in our election on his behalf. And it seems to be having an effect: According to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, the number of Republicans expressing a favorable view of Putin is now up to 37 percent, a dramatic improvement over polls taken just a few months ago. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asking about Russian interference in the election, "A combined 86 percent of Democrats are bothered a great deal/quite a bit by the interference, versus just 29 percent of Republican respondents who say this."
I suppose that some people will embrace even foreign subversion of our elections if it means their side wins. One might also argue that Republicans are just now realizing that Putin is a leader after their own hearts: An avatar of anxious masculinity, he finds democratic constraints inconvenient, rules with an iron hand, and has a habit of having his enemies killed. Sure, there's a difference between Donald Trump railing against the "dishonest media" and Putin's disfavored journalists winding up dead with frightening regularity, but I suppose Republicans get where Putin is coming from.
Russia is not the only area where Trump may pull his party to a different perspective than the one they've held for decades. Take, for instance, his antipathy to trade agreements, which Republicans have traditionally embraced. Will the party follow him there? Stephen Moore, founder of the Club for Growth and as enthusiastic an advocate for the interests of the upper crust as you'll ever find, recently claimed to have had a conversion experience on the road with Trump, and now understands that expanded trade may not be good for absolutely everyone.
Fortunately for those Republicans less than eager to change their minds about economics, there's almost no substance underneath Trump's opposition to trade deals, other than the idea that crafty foreigners are robbing foolish Americans blind. He says he'll force China to give us back all the jobs we've lost, but he never bothers explaining how that's supposed to work, beyond highly implausible threats of starting a trade war.
So elite Republicans may find that the supposedly more populist character of their party ("Trump has converted the GOP into a populist working-class party," Moore says) may not be such a problem, particularly if they don't actually have to do much of anything to demonstrate it. Indeed, Republicans are used to working hard to show voters that despite their agenda of upper-end tax cuts, corporate favors, and the destruction of unions, they're on the side of the little guy. They've used cultural issues like guns and gay marriage to paint Democrats as the real elitists, the snooty coastal-dwellers who look down on solid heartland folk. Now they barely have to make the argument, because Trump's brand of white identity politics has covered the whole party in its populist cloak.
That means Trump can just keep on having his rallies to cheer the faithful, while Republicans in Congress prepare to cut taxes for the wealthy, take health insurance away from millions of poor and middle-class Americans, and roll back regulations on Wall Street. Everybody wins.
But at some point, reality may intrude. Let's say you live in a depressed area somewhere in the Midwest, one that used to have factories with high-paying jobs that supported an entire local economy, yet today the available jobs are lower-paying and less secure, which has led to all kinds of problems from inadequately funded schools to rising rates of opioid addiction. And let's say Trump came to your town and told everyone that he'd order China to give us back our jobs, and if he were elected then before you know it those factories would be rebuilt with those same high-paying, high-benefit, secure jobs. You and your neighbors thrilled to the idea of America being made great again, and turned out in droves for Trump.
What happens when those factories don't come back? Does the GOP suddenly not seem like the party of the common man you thought it was?
Perhaps. But even before that realization sets in, Trump may ask Republicans to believe in more things they hadn't considered before now. Chances are they'll follow along, just because that's what voters—and many politicians—do: They take their cues from leaders about what positions they should hold and what they should believe. But given Trump's own erratic and idiosyncratic ideas, there's no telling where he might lead them next.