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Has President Trump Changed What It Means To Be A Republican?

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As Donald Trump tore through the Republican primaries four years ago, there was this question - would he change the Republican Party, or would the Republican Party change him? Throughout the program today, we're asking how the Trump presidency has affected institutions and the country and what another four years could bring. And, arguably, nothing looks more different under Trump's leadership than the Grand Old Party. Nicholas Lemann has just written about this for The New Yorker, and he joins us now.

Welcome.

NICHOLAS LEMANN: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your piece is titled "The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump." And I want to stress that after isn't necessarily after November 3. Of course, there is an election upcoming, and we don't know what the results will be. But you see an identity crisis in the party no matter what. How so?

LEMANN: So start with the 2016 campaign. President Trump blew away all of these much more established Republican candidates. However, then, in my view at least, he's governed as a very old-fashioned Republican. If you take out the rhetoric and just look at the substance, very big tax cuts, very big rollback of regulations...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And reshaping of the courts for the Federalist Society.

LEMANN: Yes, over 200 federal judge appointments with close ties to ideological conservative jurisprudence. So kind of the mystery of what's happened in these last four years from that point of view is, what's the future of the Republican Party? Is it the Trump of 2016 or the Trump as president who was much closer to the traditional business wing of the party?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has he moved the party further to the right? I mean, is Trump simply saying out loud about immigration in particular, which is such a huge part of his appeal, but other hot-button issues what establishment Republicans believed less vocally in the past?

LEMANN: I don't think right and left are that useful in thinking about the future of either party. At heart, the Republican Party for 100 years at least has been the party of business. And we used to think that meant it was the further to the right party because it was more about business interests, and the Democrats were more about labor interests. But, you know, that's not really true anymore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because you make the point Silicon Valley closely align to the Democrats and that the biggest companies not only in the world but in the United States are from Silicon Valley.

LEMANN: Right. And, you know, it's the Republicans that have been waging rhetorical war on Silicon Valley, and now they're waging legal war by filing an antitrust action against Google, with one against Facebook supposed to be following. It's the Republicans who did that, not the Democrats. You know, along with that, the Democrats were the party of generous social welfare programs, like Social Security and Medicare. And the Republicans were not. That's not true anymore either. So I agree that he's moved the Republicans implicitly to the right on sort of ethnic, racial issues to - more openly to the right on those issues. But that could change in the future if the Republican Party were in different hands.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you see three paths forward for the Republican Party - remnant, restoration and reversal. Remnant is a continuation of Trumpism. And you imagine Donald Trump Jr. filling in his father's shoes. Restoration is returning to the party as it was before Trump. And reversal, you say, is the least plausible but the one you spend the most time on. Can you elaborate a little bit?

LEMANN: Reversal would be that the party's traditional roles would flip to some extent, that the Republicans would be the more sort of working-class-oriented party but would also adopt a more inclusive rhetoric toward minorities and start to lure minorities away from the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party would be like the old moderate Republicans or Rockefeller Republicans that have vanished. They'd be the party of educated, prosperous people in and around the big cities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was intrigued to see who you interviewed as the possible sort of successors, leaving aside the Trump family. And you included people like Marco Rubio in that.

LEMANN: Rubio is clearly thinking about running in 2024. You know, I think what he has in mind is learning a lesson from Trump in being not so pro-business and pro-market but also being more inclusive about minorities. And, of course, he's Latino himself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Finally, remnant, restoration or reversal - what do you see the likely path for the Republican Party?

LEMANN: I would guess restoration. I mean, that's clearly what most of the major establishment elements and most of the major funders in the party want. And the problem with it is its lack of broad appeal. There was a big split between the elite and the base. And by the way, that's also true in the Democratic Party. So I don't think President Trump's winning or losing will settle these questions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Nicholas Lemann. His piece in the latest edition of The New Yorker is titled "The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump." Thank you very much.

LEMANN: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.