When Trump’s presidency comes to its end, the Republican Party will confront the same choice it faced before his rise, only even more urgently. In 2013, the party’s leaders saw the path that lay before them clearly, and urged Republicans to reach out to voters of diverse backgrounds whose own values matched the “ideals, philosophy and principles” of the GOP. Trumpism deprioritizes conservative ideas and principles in favor of ethno-nationalism.
The conservative strands of America’s political heritage—a bias in favor of continuity, a love for traditions and institutions, a healthy skepticism of sharp departures—provide the nation with a requisite ballast. America is at once a land of continual change and a nation of strong continuities. Each new wave of immigration to the United States has altered its culture, but the immigrants themselves have embraced and thus conserved many of its core traditions. To the enormous frustration of their clergy, Jews and Catholics and Muslims arriving on these shores became a little bit congregationalist, shifting power from the pulpits to the pews. Peasants and laborers became more entrepreneurial. Many new arrivals became more egalitarian. And all became more American.
By accepting these immigrants, and inviting them to subscribe to the country’s founding ideals, American elites avoided displacement. The country’s dominant culture has continually redefined itself, enlarging its boundaries to retain a majority of a changing population. When the United States came into being, most Americans were white, Protestant, and English. But the ineradicable difference between a Welshman and a Scot soon became all but undetectable. Whiteness itself proved elastic, first excluding Jews and Italians and Irish, and then stretching to encompass them. Established Churches gave way to a variety of Protestant sects, and the proliferation of other faiths made “Christian” a coherent category; that broadened, too, into the Judeo-Christian tradition. If America’s white Christian majority is gone, then some new majority is already emerging to take its place—some new, more capacious way of understanding what it is to belong to the American mainstream.