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Robert John Burck, better known as the Naked Cowboy, plays his guitar outside Trump Tower, home to Donald and Melania Trump, in New York. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)
Robert John Burck, better known as the Naked Cowboy, plays his guitar outside Trump Tower, home to Donald and Melania Trump, in New York. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)

No one is getting out of the 2016 U.S. election unscathed Add to ...

She’s up, he’s down – but even staunch Democrats do not believe he’s out.

Donald J. Trump is perhaps the most resilient figure in modern American political history. And, despite the lead Hillary Clinton built after last weekend’s shocking sex-banter video and second presidential debate, a Trump victory still remains a possibility.

Regardless, the upheaval his campaign has caused will have implications for American politics whether he triumphs in November or is humbled, in the world’s eyes, if not his own, on Election Day.

That’s because, more than ever, the 2016 election is all about Mr. Trump. His comportment and political profile have the capacity to overhaul politics in a fashion with only two North American precedents: the four election victories of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the ascendancy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, both of which changed the character of their respective countries.

Win or lose, the Trump campaign has raised some vital questions about the future of American politics.

What happens to business Republicans after Trump?

American executives tend to be conservative – comfortable not with the new, muscular conservatism but instead with the old-fashioned kind, which takes its form in dark grey haberdashery and bland politics. They prize thrift in commerce and in business, restraint in fashion and in style, reticence on the golf course and, later, in the club house or, to employ the phrase of the moment, the locker room.

Mr. Trump defies all that. Everything about him, from the knot in his tie (too fat) to his 757 on the tarmac (too showy), and from his rhetoric on the stump (too fiery) to his style in debates (too spontaneous, too pugilistic) is at war with this classic American business type.

No Republican president since Warren G. Harding, whose sexual adventures, sometimes in a White House closet, defied Republican discretion, has been remotely as defiant of Rotary Club restraint as Mr. Trump.

Chief executive officers of Fortune 100 companies are the customary targets of Republican fundraising efforts, yet not one of them has contributed to Mr. Trump’s campaign.

The United States Chamber of Commerce customarily is in lockstep with GOP presidential nominees. The chamber and Mr. Trump have sparred over trade and business policy.

In short, Mr. Trump may run a big business, but big business has no affinity with him and, in truth, is far more comfortable with Ms. Clinton. Which raises the next question.

What about the Democrats’ traditional role as the sentinels of working Americans?

A Trump victory would change the identity of the Democratic Party as dramatically as it would transform the Republican one. But even if he loses, the party’s profile has changed.

“The Democrats have become a barbell,” says Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University sociologist and author of The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats and the Recovery of American Ideals. “It has two big bulges – the professional class and the minorities – and very little in the middle. I’m not sure how stable it is.”

The customary shorthand of American politics since Mr. Roosevelt’s election in 1932 is that the Democratic Party is the enemy of business, and the worker’s friend. Blue-collar voters “are our natural constituents,” says Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, from his home in Massachusetts.

But “you have to connect with them, every single household.” adds the former governor. “Otherwise, they can feel neglected and could be peeled away. They are our people but you have to talk to them and tell them how important they are.”

So, just as Mr. Trump’s election may nudge business into the Democratic column, workers are drifting into the Republican one – because the appeal he has had for the working (even if unemployed) voter has been the surprise of Campaign 2016.

Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 sought the blue-collar vote, and commentators even had a name for the factory workers and labourers who were congenial to the Republicans: Reagan Democrats. But the movement of blue-collar voters into the Trump camp is of an order, and significance, far greater than what happened in Mr. Reagan’s victory over the feckless Jimmy Carter more than three decades ago.

Mr. Trump’s campaign, which has promised to bring jobs back to Rust Belt cities and to renegotiate trade agreements, including those with Canada, may create a permanent alliance between Republicans and working-class Americans – and, in the process, overturn decades of political assumptions.

What becomes of the Republican establishment?

“The Republican establishment would go into hiding if Trump wins,” says former New Hampshire attorney general Thomas D. Rath, who has worked for the GOP presidential candidacies of Nelson Rockefeller, Bob Dole, both Bushes, Lamar Alexander and John Kasich.

Whether he wins or loses, Mr. Rath says, “the hope would be that the urgency of this moment is overtaken by a different reality in the long term.” His fondest hope: a more traditional and sober Republican Party.

Members of the Republican establishment do not belong to the same species as business Republicans. There is scant overlap. Indeed, in the last two generations, the only figures to belong to both groups were former Michigan governor George Romney, a onetime chief of the American Motors Corporation, and his son, former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, a private-equity executive. Both had serious presidential ambitions.

The establishment includes governors, Capitol Hill lawmakers and former presidents who generally favour balanced budgets, international trade agreements, global engagement and cautious but unambiguous support for civil rights and liberties.

These figures tend to prefer moderate conservatism, and are not purists who regard compromise with contempt. They do not assail programs such as Social Security, the retirement supplement enacted in 1935, and Medicare, the health-insurance program for the elderly enacted in 1965 – the two most important American social-welfare initiatives of the last century. They have provided the Republicans with presidential nominees since 1968, with the possible exception of Mr. Reagan, although in the end he broadened the establishment’s definition sufficiently to include his adherents.

This group is personified by former president George H.W. Bush and former senator Dole of Kansas, who was the Senate majority leader and unsuccessful GOP presidential nominee in 1996. Mr. Trump has waged war against the GOP establishment, even assailing the younger Mr. Romney as a “loser” and ridiculing the Bush family. While Mr. Dole has endorsed Mr. Trump, Mr. Romney, both Bush presidents and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, have made it clear they will not vote for him.

Although unlikely to drift into the Democratic Party, members of the establishment are exceedingly uncomfortable with where Mr. Trump is leading the party they controlled for generations. The struggle between this group and a Trump administration would be a compelling element of the new political era.

If Ms. Clinton prevails, establishment Republicans will be in a difficult two-front war, playing the traditional “loyal opposition” role against the a Democratic president even as they battle to wrangle their party back to its traditional moorings.

And what about conservatism itself?

No one believes that the current nominee of the Republican Party is a conservative.

That is an unassailable statement and, given the trends in the GOP, a remarkable one. There has been a dramatic change in American politics in the past several years, with the two rather bland, undisciplined major parties, each with watery creeds, being transformed into powerful ideological forces with unprecedented discipline and rigour.

For generations, the Democrats had a conservative rump, based in the segregationist South, while the Republicans had a liberal wing, based on the East Coast, in cities along the Great Lakes and in the Pacific Northwest.

Today’s Democrats are liberal, and today’s Republicans are conservative. No wings, no rumps.

The traditional overlap on Capitol Hill – where conservative Democrats could ally with Republicans on fiscal matters, and liberal Republicans would ally with Democrats on domestic matters, especially civil rights – has vanished. The most liberal Republicans in Congress are now more conservative than the most conservative Democrats.

That wasn’t the case even at the end of the Bill Clinton era. Now the Republicans have selected a nominee who has the potential to reverse the predominant political trend of the era.

The most aggrieved elected officials today are stalwart conservatives, favouring low taxes and a strict interpretation of the Constitution – political figures who only a year ago believed they had transformed the Republican Party in their image. It was a notion Democrats were only too glad to embrace, and promote, in TV ads and newspaper op-eds. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, perhaps the GOP’s most outspoken conservative, may have endorsed Mr. Trump last month, but he did so without enthusiasm, and, in the eyes of many, without credibility.

These conservative Republicans constitute perhaps the unhappiest group in American political life in a generation. What they do – where they go – once was an American sideshow, but in recent years moved to the centre of the political big top.

How they respond to the Trump challenge, and how they choose to move forward next year, is the biggest unknown in American politics.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his coverage of U.S. politics.

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Follow on Twitter: @shribmanpg

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