Will Trump wreck the Republican Party? | US presidential elections 2016: What do I need to know? | DW | 03.03.2016
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US elections 2016

Will Trump wreck the Republican Party?

Since Super Tuesday it’s become clear that, unless something dramatic happens, Donald Trump will probably be the presidential candidate of the Republican Party. But is the party led by Trump still the Republican Party?

When Donald Trump was dominating media coverage and riding high in the polls last year the phenomenon was dubbed the "Summer of Trump" with the expectation that, like all summers, this one would eventually fade and give way to fall. But the equinox never came.

Instead, half a year and more than a dozen primaries later, Trump is not only still dominating global headlines, but is now ensconced as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

What makes Trump's seemingly unstoppable rise particularly intriguing is the fact that it was orchestrated explicitly against the very party whose nomination he was seeking. From day one Trump's behavior and lack of decorum made his disdain for the Grand Old Party clear.

Using the party

The Republican establishment's alarm bells finally rang when Trump publicly threatened to run as an independent should he not get the party's nomination. At least from that point on, it should have been evident to everyone, that Trump had little interest in the party itself, but was simply using it as a vehicle to get into the White House.

USA Wahlkampf TV Debatte New Hampshire Republikaner

Jeb Bush's campaign never took off

The stunned establishment reaction to Trump's threat was to extract a vague vow from him that he would not do such a thing after all and to hope that the man deemed next in line to become the nominee, Jeb Bush, would eventually make Trump go away somehow. It never happened. Bush's campaign never got off the ground and fizzled out before Super Tuesday.

"And so the GOP's nightmare becomes reality," said Scott Lucas, a professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham in the UK. "They are saddled with a candidate who, claiming no knowledge of the KKK, is unlikely to gain African-American votes. A candidate, who wants to build a wall with Mexico, has likely alienated Hispanic-Americans. A candidate, who, with his derogatory statements about women, risks the support of 50 percent of the US population."

Biggest crisis in a century

When the relationship between the presumptive nominee and the party's leadership is characterized by outright contempt for one another what does this say about the state of the Republican Party?

"It is certainly the biggest crisis the Republicans have faced since probably Teddy Roosevelt," said James Davis, dean of the School of Economics and Political Science at the University of St. Gallen.

Back in 1912, former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, dissatisfied with the conservative course of his party, created the Progressive Party to challenge Republican incumbent William Howard Taft. Taft and Roosevelt split the vote with the result that Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election and became president.

Unlike the Roosevelt-Taft feud however, the current Republican crisis is different, noted Davis, because it is not simply the traditional internal battle among different strands of the Republican Party. "Trump is actually interesting because he is mobilizing people that weren't necessarily part of the traditional Republican Party."

Expanded primary voter base

Trump himself boasted to have "expanded the Republican Party" after his Super Tuesday win. And judging by the record turnout in many Republican primaries, like Virginia and Tennessee, he is right.

"The number of people participating in these primaries is really dramatic," said Davis. "It is almost as if he is creating a new Republican Party and not sort of mobilizing a faction that has been silent for a long time within the party."

His colleague Lucas agrees that Trump's rise can't be understood by simply looking at it through the prism of the traditional conservative-moderate split inside the Republican Party. That's because Trump, he contends, is neither a traditional moderate nor the classic, fire-breathing archconservative, "but an outsider exploiting an opportunity."

Party of Lincoln?

The big question is whether the support Trump has received not just from disenfranchised white voters, but also from the likes of the Ku Klux Klan or the Nation of Islam can somehow be squared with the party of Abraham Lincoln.

"The Republican Party today looks very different," said Davis. "It is so different from its roots. This was the party of Lincoln that abolished slavery and now it is being supported by the Ku Klux Klan. This was the party of Reagan who advocated for a North American free trade area and now it wants to build a wall along the Mexican border."

While some traditional Republicans like former presidential candidate Chris Christie have already made their peace with Trump, parts of the Republican establishment appear to finally have realized that Trump's nomination could herald the end of the party as they know it.

Brokered convention

USA Vorwahlen Super Tuesday Marco Rubio

Rubio must win Florida to be able to remain in the race

Consequently, as Politico reported, various anti-Trump groups are now pumping money into Florida as part of a last-ditch effort to boost Marco Rubio ahead of the primary there. On a different front, more than 50 Republican notables released a letter warning of Trump's non-existing foreign policy chops.

The establishment's last hope is to somehow prop up Trump's opponents to a point that would prevent him at least from winning an outright majority of delegates before the Republican Party's convention this summer. With no clear winner, the party's various factions would then get together and jointly anoint a nominee who represents the Republican Party.

If all of this sounds like a far-fetched idea in an election year characterized by anti-establishment furor, that's because it is.

Put differently, this "scenario appears remote", said Lucas.

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