President Trump, eyeing a screaming throng of supporters in Arizona last week, ventured into what would have been considered GOP blasphemy a decade ago.
“We all liked Ronald Reagan, but nobody ever said, ‘We love you. We love you. We love you,’ ” the president said in Bullhead City. “And he wouldn’t get crowds like this. If Ronald Reagan — who I consider to be top-notch — if he came here, he’d have a couple hundred people legitimately … we’re having 25, 30, 35, 40, 45,000 people.”
The crowd cheered.
Republican strategist Christopher Barron, who originally backed Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky over Mr. Trump in 2016, says Mr. Trump is right about Reagan, the conservative demigod and Republican standard-bearer since the 1980s.
“Trump let all the monkeys out of their cages, and nobody’s putting them back in,” Mr. Barron said.
From attitude to policy, Mr. Trump has unquestionably left his signature on the GOP and much of U.S. politics over the last four years that, for better or for worse, is written in permanent ink in many areas.
“Trump has pulled the Republican Party kicking and screaming towards the working class to listen to what the people want,” said Ann Eubank of Alabama, who was a delegate for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016.
She said Mr. Trump has been a voice for a “silent majority” that has not been heard for years — even during former President George W. Bush’s two terms in office.
“The elitist Republicans don’t listen to the everyday Jane and Joe America,” she said.
As Mr. Barron and Ms. Eubank can attest, Mr. Trump wasn’t the first choice for many GOP primary voters in 2016.
But, like Godzilla in a China shop, he blazed through a field of about a dozen major contenders as grassroots activists embraced his ability to go on perpetual offense as well as his populist preaching on issues ranging from economics to trade.
“What Trump has taught Republicans is to have a backbone and a spine,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist with close ties to the White House. “Don’t back down from the media and the Democrats when you get double-teamed on a particular idea.”
Mr. Trump acknowledged at a recent Florida rally that some former presidential contenders — which included Mr. Cruz — were urging him to talk less about Hunter Biden’s high-flying overseas business deals and more about issues like the economy in the closing stretch of the 2020 race.
“I disagree. Maybe that’s why I’m here and they’re not,” the president said.
Jared Kushner, the White House adviser and presidential son-in-law, told journalist Bob Woodward earlier this year that there’s a disconnect between what GOP activists care about and what voters care about.
“What Trump’s been able to do is — I say he basically did a full hostile takeover of the Republican Party. And I don’t think it’s even as much about the issues. I think it’s about the attitude,” Mr. Kushner said.
Former 2016 Republican presidential rivals like Mr. Cruz, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have since molded themselves into steadfast Trump allies on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Trump slammed the FBI this week for looking into a recent incident in Texas where his supporters allegedly tried to run a Biden-Harris bus off the road. After delivering lectures in 2016 about the dangers of trusting Mr. Trump with the nuclear codes, Mr. Rubio followed suit and cheered on the Texas convoy.
“We love what they did, but here’s what they don’t know: We do that in Florida every day,” Mr. Rubio said at a recent Trump rally.
Mr. Trump has certainly bucked GOP orthodoxy on some policy issues, notably trade.
He ripped up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to enter into a new deal with Canada and Mexico. Just a few years earlier, top congressional Republicans, including then-House Speaker and former Republican vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan, were working with the Obama White House on a new free trade pact with about a dozen Pacific Rim countries.
“News flash: no one cared about the Paul Ryan budget blueprint,” Mr. Barron said. “It wasn’t a hostile takeover by Trump. The base took the party back.”
Former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, who represented Northern Virginia in Congress for more than a decade, recalled watching returns on election night in 2016 in South Carolina with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and getting the sense pretty early on that something big was brewing.
“I saw the numbers in Indiana. I said, ‘Whoa! This is way bigger than anybody predicted or thought,’” Mr. Davis said.
He said most of Mr. Trump’s supporters stick with him because they’re simply aligned culturally with the president on many issues.
“The Republican base has migrated from the country club to the country,” he said. “Take a look at rural America. And we have lost the suburbs.”
“No, it’s not sustainable. But remember, coalitions are not static, either,” Mr. Davis added. “Biden’s coalition basically agrees on one thing: Getting rid of Trump. After that, there’s tremendous disagreement.”
Prominent Trump critics within the GOP, and even those who slightly criticized him or have been seen as insufficiently supportive, are mostly no longer politically relevant.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, was persona non grata at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) after voting to convict the president of abuse of power at his impeachment trial.
Mr. Ryan, who criticized the president during the 2016 campaign and strained to hold his tongue after Mr. Trump was elected, left Congress in January 2019.
Some anti-Trump Republicans and former allies are nevertheless predicting that Mr. Trump can be lanced like a boil from the broader Republican Party after he leaves office.
“This is a personality cult that is about to dematerialize,” Anthony Scaramucci said recently on MSNBC. “Just like the Night King went down in the ‘Game of Thrones,’ all the zombies are going to disappear from the situation.”
Mr. Scaramucci, who spent 11 days as the White House communications director in 2017, said he’s hoping for a “reckoning” and “soul-searching” within the GOP.
“You’re not going to take the Republican Party into an aging white demographic that buys My Pillows and catheters from Fox News commercial interruptions,” he said.
Ms. Eubank wasn’t buying that it would back to business as usual whenever Mr. Trump leaves office.
“The people who have been given their voice back by Trump will show their strength,” she said. “You can’t just sit there and collect your millions of dollars from your corporate benefactors and ignore the people.”
She called Mr. Cruz a “genius” and constitutional scholar — but said there’s no way he would have been able to do what Mr. Trump has done.
“Cruz is a process person. He’s not a street fighter,” she said. “We had to have a street fighter.”