With debate on tap, Republicans look both back and forward (includes video story)

As Republican presidential candidates prepare to debate tomorrow night at the Arsht Center and Donald Trump readies his own event in Hialeah, it is worth taking a step back to look at how the party they are all competing to represent has changed over the years.

Republican leadership has varied in the executive branch since the party’s birth in 1854. Nowadays, the poster boy for the GOP is Donald Trump, who presents a stark difference to the leadership of Ronald Reagan – a president who arguably fostered the party’s conservative ideals in the 1980s. 

But how did the party shift from the former actor to the former businessman? Has the party now completely centered around Trump? 

“In the 1980s, even though Reagan was a conservative Republican, he still preserved that support for American liberalism…the old commitment to liberal values of tolerance and pluralism,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

He explained that Reagan embraced respect for immigrants because he thought immigrants positively impacted the American economy.

“Reagan was the first to provide widespread amnesty for immigrants and undocumented immigrants,” he added. “We had this combination of things: a large sector of the population who felt the country had abandoned them and had taken away secure jobs and a lot of people who began to feel that they were somehow replaced.”

Gamarra later explained that this anti-immigrant sentiment amongst the American electorate deepened when Barack Obama took office in 2008. The Obama administration implemented programs beneficial to immigrant communities, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012.

“[Obama’s] presidency exacerbated all of those underlying tensions, so it is not surprising that eight years later we would elect somebody like Donald Trump,” said Gamarra. “He essentially buried the old-style, Republican leadership. What exists today is not the Republican party, it is Trump’s party with an amorphous ideology and an amorphous kind of structure. It is less a party and more a movement.”

This evolution of the Republican leadership image, and shift from embracing conservatism to a more right-leaning ideology, has influenced some voters’ opinions about the GOP.

“I just do not like the things that [Trump] says and what he stands for,” said Mora Downs, who voted in the 2020 presidential election for President Joe Biden. “He has sown a lot of hatred in our country and a lot of division, and I did not want someone like that to be representing our country for four more years.”

Alexandra Howard is a senior pursuing a dual degree in digital journalism and political science. She intends to later graduate from law school and become an immigration lawyer and political journalist.