Eric Thayer / The New York Times

Cornell professors say Trump's candidacy has transformed the Republican Party — and likely not for the better.

November 6, 2016

Has Trump Killed the Republican Party?

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rump’s candidacy has been unprecedented in American history, his campaign breaking almost every political boundary and norm. While he has certainly left a mark on the American electoral system, many believe Trump has also fundamentally changed the Republican party, leaving some to question whether — win or lose — the party of Lincoln will recover after Nov. 8.

Rising Through the Ranks

Several Cornell professors and students tell different stories of the roots and implications of Trump’s rise through GOP ranks. Their analysis diverges on whether the candidate has corrupted the Republican party or merely carried conservatives’ policy and rhetoric to their logical conclusions.

Pointing to his “buffoonish” rhetoric, Prof. David Bateman, government, said Trump has “tarnished the [Republican] brand by making it more his own.” He implied this change in tenor could have a lasting impact on the Republican Party.

“The major problems are going to be how they can start stepping back from the rhetoric they’ve been engaging in for so long,” Bateman said.

Racial Rhetoric

But before we can understand what the Republican Party is going to look like in the future, we must understand the historical precedent that has made Trump’s candidacy possible, according to Prof. Kevin Gaines, history.

“Trump is just the logical outcome of longstanding GOP tactics of race baiting, like trying to stereotype African Americans as welfare recipients,” Gaines said. “Even though Trump is completely in his own universe in terms of bad behaviors, he is an extension of [the policies] of racial polarization that other GOP politicians have used.”

This “racial dog-whistle politics” started with Nixon’s “southern strategy” in 1968 that used racially coded rhetoric to attract the disaffected white democrats after the Civil Rights Act was passed, Gaines explained.

“Ronald Reagan also used racial stereotyping to attack the notion that the government actually helped people,” Gaines said. “He would talk about ‘welfare queens’ and ‘young bucks,’ and while he was not talking about black people explicitly, the myth of African American welfare dependency undermined support for social spending for all Americans.”

Since Reagan, this type of racially coded messaging continued in campaign television ads that “openly catered to white resentment of African American progress,” Gaines said. This racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric culminated in Trump’s vitriolic campaign today.

A Party Divided

The nomination of Trump as the Republican candidate reflects the disappointment of many voters with the mainstream party, which will not dissipate anytime soon, according to Prof. Diane Rubenstein.

“I don’t think the populist wing is going to go away,” Rubenstein said. “Trump supporters found their voice and the people who were unhappy with the conventional Republican Party really did get energized.”

The party now faces its biggest challenge: internal rebellion and division. As a radical populist branch of the party overtook the whole, the 2016 election has left many Republicans torn between party loyalty and classical conservative principles.

“There are two aspects of the Republican Party,” Rubenstein said. “There’s the aspect that’s more populist and more radical right, but you have, on the other hand, the moderate members, what we think of as the traditional Republicans, and they are primarily proponents of small government.”

Many believe that the Republican party will struggle to emerge from this conflict unified.

Cornell Republicans Chair Olivia Corn ’19 said, “It’s going to be a very divided party and there’s going to be a lot of tension within the party moving forward. I think the future of the Republican party is going to end up splitting into those who supported Trump and those who didn’t support him.”

GOP ‘Identity Crisis’

This internal division could manifest itself as a cross-party problem as well, if well-educated upper class whites become Democrats, according to Bateman. However, he said he imagines that “hyper-nationalist” rhetoric could keep this constituency from fleeing in droves.

“[The Republican Party] has been playing this rhetoric, and I think they will double-down on hyper-nationalism that is deeply opposed to multiculturalism and they will double-down on policy that’s probably not going to win them Hispanics or African-American voters,” Bateman said. “But it might stop the hemorrhaging of the well-educated upper class whites.”

Agreeing that many minority groups have been alienated from the Republican Party by this election, Austin McLaughlin ‘18, executive director of Cornell Republicans, expressed concern about what this shift in electorate means for the future of the party.

“The Republican Party needed to align with the Hispanic voters for this election cycle,” McLaughlin said. “I think the greatest shame of this election is that Trump has forever alienated the Hispanic voters who would’ve initially voted Republicans. Without this base, I don’t know if the Republicans are going to be able to win.”

In addition to racial and ethnic minorities, the Republican Party must also pay closer attention to maintaining its female base, according to Rubenstein.

“I think that women have felt for some time not in sync with the policies of the Republican Party, so I think this has just driven a further wedge,” Rubenstein said. “I think for women, this perhaps may be one of the final nails on the coffin.”

Gaines and Rubenstein agreed that the GOP will have to redefine itself in the coming years to appeal to this shifting electorate, including upper class whites, minorities and women.

“The GOP is in an identity crisis right now,” Gaines said. “They’re going to have to decide who they’re going to be moving forward. Are they going to become a home for racism, anti-Semitism, the so-called ‘alt-right’?”

Looking Ahead

Despite the challenges the Republican Party will face in the coming years, many agree that the immediate future of the party is not as bleak as this election may seem to indicate.

This election could also be a wake-up call, urging the Republican Party to make extensive policy changes that will benefit party in the long run, according to Irvin McCullouch ’19, a member of the Cornell Republicans executive board.

“If Donald Trump loses, the Republican Party is going to realize very violently that we should not have [nominated] Donald Trump,” McCullouch said. “Either way, I think that we’ll head toward more progressive stances on immigration, like amnesty, and corporate tax rates, and I think that this will be a very good thing for the Republican Party.”

Given this realization, this year’s election could mark the juncture of “considerable reconfiguration of the party coalitions,” according to Bateman.

On Nov. 9, regardless of who is set to occupy the Oval Office, Republicans must pick up the pieces that began to shatter the moment Trump stepped out of his tower.