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The GOP convention, the party's ostensible show of beribboned unity, cannot paint over the simmering civil war – the latest in a grand tradition of schisms. And when the conflict between conservatism and Trumpism finally boils over, only one side can survive

The New York Times, Getty Images, The Associated Press and Reuters

David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.

No political party in the world has undergone so many identity crises so often as the Republican Party, which on Monday begins its rump convention to renominate Donald Trump as president.

At the turn of the last century, it was forced to decide whether it was a redoubt of conservatism or a vanguard for reform. (Reform won, at least for a while.) At the end of the First World War, it had to decide whether it believed in world engagement or retreat. (Retreat won, until the next world war.)

For the past 80 years, there have been countless wars for the soul of the Republican Party – indeed, it is remarkable how often that very locution has been employed to describe a party otherwise known for steady habits and placid “normalcy,” a word coined by its 1920 nominee, Warren G. Harding.

The war for the soul of the GOP that now is going on – between those aligned with Mr. Trump, and adamantine Never Trumpers including some who have formed a political action committee called the Lincoln Project – has multiple antecedents.

In 1940, when Canada already was engaged in combat in the Second World War but the United States was not, that war for the Republican soul was between isolationists such as New York district attorney Thomas Dewey and interventionists such as the businessman Wendell Willkie. In 1952, it was between conservatives led by senator Robert Taft of Ohio and moderates favouring Dwight Eisenhower, then the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. In 1964, it was between far-right sentinels such as senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and more liberal figures such as New York State governor Nelson Rockefeller. And almost constantly since 1976, when conservative governor Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent president Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, it has been over the definition of conservatism in a mature democracy.

“The Republicans are in a perpetual war with themselves,” said Kathleen Iannello, a Gettysburg College political scientist. “They tend to be in a constant argument, and they seldom resolve that argument.”

This era’s war within themselves – this year’s edition of the constant argument – pits classical conservatism against a muscular populism with trace elements of iconoclasm but without ideological grounding. In the air in North Carolina next week, as across the country, is the political question of the age: In the post-Trump era, which will begin either next January or four years later, what will be the character and composition of the American institution known as the Grand Old Party?

Is it the party of international institutions and of NATO, which Mr. Eisenhower led? Or is it the party of global disengagement, as Mr. Trump has undertaken? Is it the party of both the tidy small-town traditions of Main Street and the wealthy wolfishness of Wall Street? Or is it the party of the white non-college workers in mines, factories and construction sites, who were the reliable, sturdy base of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition but who migrated into the GOP after the hard-hat rebellions of 1970 in the Richard Nixon years, the common-sense entreaties of Mr. Reagan, and the full-throated welcome of Mr. Trump? Is it the party of the establishment, or the party of political insurgents? Is it the party of Edmund Burke, the 18th-century philosopher whom many conservatives regard as their ideological North Star? Or is it the party of Edward Lorenz, the MIT professor remembered today as the progenitor of chaos theory?

On the resolution of those questions, the Republican Party – and perhaps American politics as we have known it for the past century – depends.

“The Republican Party doesn’t know what it is right now,” said Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham-Southern College.

“But it has to decide. Presidential elections are the one time when Americans assess their country, and the Republicans are going to have to take a big-time look inside their party and figure out just who they are – especially if Trump eventually gets trounced and if the Senate flips to the Democrats.”

Right now, Mr. Trump is leading an outlaw party, at conflict with its heritage – but with great adherence from elected GOP officials, if not from the old Republican elite or the Republican mainstream.

“As long as Trump is president, the splits will be less evident than they are in reality,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative-oriented Washington Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. There remains a fear and aversion among most Republicans to break ranks from him. But Mr. Trump never reflected the views of mainstream Republicans, who have stayed quiet to protect their political careers.

But, Mr. Wehner said, if Mr. Trump is defeated in November, “there will be a civil war in the Republican Party – extremely intense, and with a lot of acrimony.”

George W. Bush (with wife Laura Bush) and Donald Trump greet their supporters at the Republican conventions in 2000 and 2016, respectively, where they were named as presidential candidates.AFP/Getty Images, Reuters

Just 20 years ago, George W. Bush – the blue-chip patrician son of a president and grandson of a senator who was named for his great-grandfather, George Walker, the banker who established golf’s Walker Cup – won the Republican presidential nomination. And in his acceptance speech, he spoke of the GOP as the party “not of repose but of reform.” He discussed “our sense of community” and introduced the term “compassionate conservatism” to a nationwide television audience. He said, in a phrase with more poignancy for our time than for his, “I will not attack a part of this country because I want to lead the whole of it.”

Mr. Bush may not be remembered fondly; he presided over a disastrous war in Iraq and a near meltdown of the economy. But his speech is a good marker for the party’s passage in the 21st century.

“You listen to George W. Bush and he talked about service and character and helping others,” said Stuart Stevens, a top strategist for every GOP nominee between Robert Dole in 1996 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and who is now a leading figure in the Lincoln Project. “That is like language from an ancient, lost civilization. Anyone who talked like that today couldn’t win 20 per cent in a Republican primary. All those qualities, Donald Trump considers weaknesses.”

From the archives: Watch the highlights of Donald Trump's nomination acceptance speech from the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland.

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Now examine Mr. Trump’s acceptance speech 16 years later. “My message is that things have to change,” he said to the audience at his Cleveland convention, “and they have to change right now.” In that one bellowed sentence, Mr. Trump defined himself as a revolutionary – a repudiator of the notion of a Republican president as the nation’s Respectable-in-Chief, as a stable, sober guarantor of social order, for he was clearly determined to reject the ethos of George H.W. Bush, who in a foreign-policy memoirs wrote that “among our most valuable contributions will be to engender predictability and stability.”

In doing so, Mr. Trump catalyzed another GOP departure from the past 30 years: decorum, a mainstay of a Republicanism as antique as a musical cigarette box. For decades, Republicans on Capitol Hill and in presidential elections were described as “courtly” – a characterization that may have seemed discordant for Mr. Nixon but was apt for Mr. Goldwater, Mr. Ford, Mr. Reagan, both Bushes and Mr. Romney, the party’s last nominee before Mr. Trump and now an outspoken Trump dissenter.

That phrase can hardly be applied to Mr. Trump – and indeed, the depletion of the decorum impulse began years before on Capitol Hill, when four decades of minority status in the House boiled over with the ascendancy of the combative representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who introduced a bruising style of Republicanism in Congress. Mr. Trump has taken this to new levels, baldly criticizing and even demeaning his rivals while bitterly attacking his GOP predecessors, especially both Bush presidents.

A Trump supporter waves a flag before a campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20.Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

This coarsening has only made the party fissures, inflamed and dotting the face of U.S. politics, all the more obvious.

They are evident in reliably Republican Oklahoma, which has voted Republican in 16 of the past 17 presidential elections but where unemployment reached nearly 15 per cent in April, and where Mr. Trump held a disastrous, low-attendance rally on June 20. They are burgeoning in swing-state Pennsylvania, where Mr. Trump prevailed four years ago but where he now faces an uphill battle, particularly in Philadelphia’s suburban counties. And they are widening in Massachusetts, which voted Democratic in the past eight presidential elections in a row but which, a century ago, was a sturdy centre of Republicanism, contributing three GOP presidential nominees in the past century, and electing more Republicans than Democrats to the governor’s chair on Beacon Hill since the start of the 20th century.

And on Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers have displayed almost iron-clad loyalty to Mr. Trump, there remain important divisions within the party.

For much of this month, Republicans have fought over fiscal legislation, tangling over the composition of the latest coronavirus financial-aid package. They looked askance at Mr. Trump’s executive order for payroll tax cuts, expressing worries the measure would endanger the solvency of the Social Security system. They took sides in a brutal GOP primary in Kansas, with many of them backing the successful establishment contender over the candidate closely identified with Mr. Trump. And they engaged in a range war with a member of one of the Republican Party’s signature families, criticizing Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the party’s highest-ranking woman in Congress, for her apostasy on foreign policy and her support of infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, whom she called “one of the finest public servants we have ever had.”

A bust of Abraham Lincoln stands at the Gettysburg Address Memorial in Gettysburg, Pa., on Aug. 11.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/Getty Images

But the greatest Republican Party struggle is with its own history.

Founded as an anti-slavery party in 1854 and electing its first president, Abraham Lincoln, six years later, the Republicans were the original civil-rights party. For generations, the few Blacks offered a ballot voted Republican, the party inevitably described as the “Party of Lincoln.” Indeed, as late as 1964, a larger percentage of Republicans in both the Senate (82 per cent) and the House of Representatives (80 per cent) supported the landmark Civil Rights Act than did the Democrats (69 per cent and 61 per cent, respectively).

Black affinity for the Republicans is one of the explanations for Southern white affinity for the Democrats, who after the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction in 1877 depended for their power on the so-called Solid South, where a one-party system ruled the region, sending Democratic segregationists to Capitol Hill who repeatedly blocked progressive legislation while building up enormous seniority that provided them with powerful committee chairmanships.

The erosion of the Democrats’ vaunted Solid South was gradual, occurring after the so-called Dixiecrats bolted from the Democrats in 1948 because of president Harry Truman’s support for Black rights and a strong civil-rights platform plank. Other than his Arizona home state, all of the states that sided with Mr. Goldwater in the GOP’s 1964 debacle were in the Deep South.

Mr. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” gave the 1968 nominee Virginia, North Carolina and Florida – and would likely have provided him with five additional Southern states had former governor George Wallace of Alabama not undertaken a third-party candidacy. By 1980, with the ascendancy of Mr. Reagan, a new Solid South – solidly Republican – had taken form. Mr. Trump, who took every state of the Old Confederacy except for Virginia in 2016, is likely to do well in the South again this year, but Texas, North Carolina and Georgia may be within the Democrats’ grasp; Florida, where Democratic nominee Joe Biden has opened up a double-digit advantage over the President, could abandon Mr. Trump.

Still, it remains possible that even after Mr. Trump’s presidency, Republicans could retain his style and political portfolio.

“A large part of the Republican establishment and the very different conservative establishment are eager to return to regularly scheduled programming and to write Trump off as an anomaly and believe there are no lessons to be learned from him,’' said David Azerrad, a Montreal-reared conservative theorist who now teaches at the Washington campus of Hillsdale College. “Republicans can’t win electorally on Reagan lobotomized and cryogenically frozen, which is the view of a large part of the donor class and the Republican consulting class.”

African-American supporters pray with Mr. Trump at the White House in February.Leah Millis/Reuters/Reuters

Yet as the United States becomes more diverse – it is projected to be a “majority minority” country in a quarter-century’s time – the demographics of the Republican Party are, in the characterization of Harvard Kennedy School political scientist Thomas Patterson, “horrible.” “The two groups the Republicans depend on – evangelicals and working-class whites – are in decline,” he said. “Republican groups are shrinking and Democratic groups are growing.”

Prof. Patterson, projecting the political future by working with Census Bureau estimates, says that based on population change alone, the Democrats would have a 59-41 percentage point advantage in only a dozen years. The presence of Senator Kamala Harris of California, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, on the Democratic ticket, only reinforces the demographic differences between the parties – and the long-term challenge the GOP faces.

But for the short term, Republicans are focused on the 2020 election and the stark choice that partisans of both sides identify.

“It doesn’t do very well to say that Trump is not perfect and is no better than these liberal nuts who are trying to destroy the country,” said Victor Davis Hanson, a prominent conservative thinker at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “It’s not hard to see the bright side of Trump. Everybody was getting a job. The border traffic was closed. Everybody was happy. But the elites in the Republican Party didn’t get it. I don’t think they get it now.”

Thus, even as the Republicans seek to unite themselves next week, their divisions are writ large.

“This is not a united party,” said Mr. Wehner, the veteran of three Republican administrations. “It is not a coherent party, and it is not a happy party.” Luckily for them, the festivities in North Carolina will be restricted because of the coronavirus threat. There’s too much unease within the party to party.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this column incorrectly said Donald Trump swept all 11 states of the Old Confederacy in 2016.

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