But for all the attention paid to what Trump represents in American politics, the most salient feature of his ascent within the Republican Party might be what he doesn’t represent. When Ronald Reagan overthrew the old order of the Republican Party in the 1980 election, he did so as the figurehead of a conservative movement that had been gestating since the 1950s, with an intellectual framework that William F. Buckley Jr. had been articulating for a quarter-century, with a policy blueprint provided by the Heritage Foundation and with a campaign apparatus that quickly pivoted to the task of converting the new constituencies he’d brought into the party to a base durable enough to build on. The total merger of his movement with his party didn’t happen immediately, but the key elements of it were in place by the end of his first term, and there was not much ambiguity about what the G.O.P., if it was transforming, was transforming into.
Trump’s takeover, by contrast, has been as one-dimensional as it has been total. In the space of one term, the president has co-opted virtually every power center in the Republican Party, from its congressional caucuses to its state parties, its think tanks to its political action committees. But though he has disassembled much of the old order, he has built very little in its place. “You end up with this weird paradox where he stands to haunt the G.O.P. for many years to come, but on the substance it’s like he was never even there,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist.
During Trump’s presidency, his party has become host to new species of fringe figures. Laura Loomer, a self-identified #ProudIslamophobe and erstwhile Infowars contributor who has been banned from Twitter and Facebook, earned presidential praise — and a campaign-trail cameo from Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump — for winning her Florida congressional district’s Republican primary in August. There is also Marjorie Taylor Greene, the party’s current nominee in the race for Georgia’s 14th district, whose embrace of the QAnon conspiracy theory and litany of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic statements didn’t dissuade Trump from calling her a “future Republican star,” or Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republicans’ leader in the House, from pledging to give her committee assignments should she win in November.
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But Trump’s influence is also reflected, in a more pedestrian but equally revealing way, in the ease with which George Kruse and others like him have transposed Trumplike signifiers onto otherwise utterly conventional suburban Republican platforms. Republican voters are essentially the same people who voted Republican before Trump; the party’s politicians are still mostly the same people, hiring mostly the same strategists. But their relationships to the party now flow through a single man, one who has never offered a clear vision for his political program beyond his immediate aggrandizement. Whether Trump wins or loses in November, no one else in the party’s official ranks seems to have one, either.
This is a far cry from the certainty with which those same officials regarded Trump nearly five years ago. In January 2016, Republican lawmakers gathered at a harborside Marriott in Baltimore for their annual conference retreat. Paul Ryan, then the speaker of the House, would preview his “Better Way” agenda, a collection of policy proposals addressing the economy, national security, the social safety net. In scheduled sessions, members would debate the finer points of the agenda that Ryan stressed would transform the G.O.P. from an “opposition party” to a “proposition party.” And in unscheduled interludes, they would consider how their party’s presidential primary could very well come down to a contest between a reality-television star, whom they hated, and Senator Ted Cruz, whom they also hated.
By the end of the retreat, many had privately agreed that the best way to achieve Ryan’s proposition-party ambitions in such a scenario was to nominate the candidate with the fewer proposals. As one Republican congressman explained to me at the time, when I was reporting on the conference for National Review Online, Cruz had his own “divisive” ideas (though in fact they were not so different from Ryan’s own). But with Trump, “there’s not a lot of meat there,” the congressman said. If Trump became the party’s candidate, he serenely predicted, he would “be looking to answer the question: ‘Where’s the beef?’ And we will have that for him.”
As it turned out, Trump wasn’t especially interested in running on Ryan’s “bold conservative policy agenda.” “Put a Stop to Executive Overreach” may have been a Better Way, but Trump believed the people — his people — would be more galvanized by a ban on all Muslim travel to the United States, which he first proposed the month before. (“Offensive and unconstitutional,” Mike Pence, then the governor of Indiana, tweeted of the ban at the time.) “It’s the party’s party,” Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, nevertheless repeatedly insisted through the summer of 2016. “The party defines the party.”