Donald Trump’s conservative critics have one last hope: defeat. If Republicans suffer humiliating defeats in the midterm elections, they suggest, President Trump will get the blame. Influential donors and grass-roots Republicans will turn on him, and the party will get back to normal. Not so long ago this was the party of Paul Ryan and free trade. This was the party of George W. Bush and compassionate conservatism. This was a party whose self-performed autopsy after the 2012 election called for more minority outreach. After Mr. Trump, why can’t the G.O.P. be that party again?
The ranks of anti-Trump Republicans grow thinner by the day. They’re retiring from Congress. They’re writing memoirs blasting their former friends. But they hold out hope for the future. If the Republican Party could undergo such a profound change in personality and policy thanks to just one man in a mere three years, who’s to say it can’t change back? The Trump coalition seems so impermanent, after all, a motley mix of Southern evangelicals, businessmen who think like the Chamber of Commerce and disaffected white voters from the Rust Belt. Throw in foreign-policy hawks and anti-interventionist America Firsters, and Trump’s Republican Party looks like an impossible contradiction. It can’t last. Can it?
Yes, it can. In fact, the party that President Trump has remade in his image is arguably less divided and in a better position to keep winning the White House than it has been at any time since the 1980s. What Mr. Trump has done is to rediscover the formula that made the landslide Republican Electoral College victories of the Nixon and Reagan years possible. Mr. Trump’s signature themes of economic nationalism and immigration restriction are only 21st-century updates to the issues that brought the Republican Party triumph in all but one of the six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988.
Some of the parallels are obvious. President Trump talks about crime and left-wing agitation in much the same way that Richard Nixon once did — and Ronald Reagan, too, especially during his time as governor of California. Mr. Trump’s combination of force with an aversion to large-scale military interventions and nation-building also bears a resemblance to the policies of Republican presidents past. Dwight Eisenhower and Mr. Reagan also preferred to build up military strength without engaging in the kinds of prolonged wars for which Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush are remembered. And while Mr. Nixon was mired in Vietnam, he ran as a candidate eager to find an exit.
Mr. Trump’s willingness to deal with even as repellent a dictator as Kim Jong-un has a precedent in the creative diplomacy pursued by Mr. Nixon with Mao Zedong. If Mr. Trump is mocked for saying that he fell in love with Mr. Kim after an exchange of letters, Mr. Reagan was once mocked, too, and by conservatives at that, for his love affair with Mikhail Gorbachev. The foreign leaders may be very different, but the strong Republican’s openness to negotiation is not.
But the most important ways in which Mr. Trump recapitulates the winning themes of earlier Republicans are less direct. Throughout the Cold War, Republicans presented themselves as the party of greater nationalism in the struggle against a global threat. If the United States was to survive in a world that seemed increasingly subjugated by international Communism, the country would have to embrace the party that was most anti-Communist.
The Soviet Union is long gone, but our national distinctiveness — the American way of life — is perceived to be under threat by new global forces, this time in the form of competition from China and international economic and regulatory bodies that compromise national sovereignty. Many voters see immigration as part of this story. They want America to control its borders by political choice, not to admit more immigrants because a global labor market insists that more must come for the good of all.
Even in the area where Mr. Trump seems most different from Republicans past, on trade, he has really returned to an older style of politics. Mr. Reagan was an economic nationalist, too, not just because he protected a company like Harley-Davidson against competition from Japan but more important because his pro-growth policies of deregulation and tax cuts were themselves the appropriate forms of economic nationalism for the 1980s. In the decades before the rise of China as an industrial superpower, economic nationalism was chiefly a matter of keeping the American economy entrepreneurial — defending it against red tape and business-unfriendly policies at home rather than the predatory economic strategies of foreign governments.
By the early 1990s, the Reagan economic strategy — a mix of entrepreneurship, tough bargaining and limited protection — had succeeded against stiff competition from Japan. That victory was squandered, however, by Republicans and Democrats starting later in that decade who pursued economic policy not in terms of national industry but as an exercise in global ideological consumerism.
The Republican Party began in the 19th century as a free-labor party, built on the interest of workers who did not want to compete with the cheaper labor of an expanding slave economy. After the Civil War, the Republicans were the party of industry and protection, which also made it the party of jobs. Only the Great Depression brought an end to the dominance that Republicans long enjoyed as a result. After World War II, Republicans failed when they made feints in the direction of overthrowing the New Deal. The Democrats became the party of industry and jobs, until inflation and stagnation created an opening for a new Republican business strategy. And it was a strategy — not an ideological doctrine.
The business side of President Trump’s coalition still puts its bottom line ahead of its theoretical commitments: Mr. Trump has produced a very good environment for business, no matter what the businesspeople think about his tariffs. They want to win elections so that they can continue to prosper, and if that means electing more protectionists after Mr. Trump, that is a price they are readily willing to pay.
Grass-roots evangelical Christians and Rust Belt workers, meanwhile, both find something to like in an America that reaffirms its economic exceptionalism and sovereignty. That, no less than Mr. Trump’s loyalty to Christian conservatives on abortion and other issues, is why evangelical voters have not abandoned him. And it’s why Mr. Trump won states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that had eluded other Republican presidential nominees since 1988.
Few Republicans running this year seem to understand what gave Mr. Trump his edge in 2016 — it was not that he was simply combative and rhetorically right-wing. It was that he had a vision of what it meant to make American great again, by making the Republicans a party for the nation again.