I am not so sure that the Republican Party is the “Trump Party.” Frankly, I hope that you are right, and that I am wrong, and that the GOP really has adopted the economic and political worldview identified as “America First.” Nevertheless, apart from Trump, a handful of GOP Senators (i.e. Alabama Senator Sessions), and a handful of GOP Congressmen, the vast majority of GOP elected officials have not deviated too far from the Ronald Reagan agenda.
It is a mistake to think that the Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives reflects an “America First” agenda. Yes, these Tea Party folks are very critical of the K Street Establishment. Yes, they regard McConnell and Ryan as wishy washy compromisers. Nevertheless, on issues like trade, foreign alliances, military projection, etc., they are much more in sync with the post-Goldwater GOP than with the 1930s Old Right known as “America First.”
One way to separate “America First” Republicans from Reagan Republicans is how they voted on the TPA (trade pact negotiation authority prior to the vote on the TPP). You will note that the vast majority of Republican officeholders did vote for the TPA, which makes it easier later to pass the TPP, even when contrary to the majority opinion within their own districts.
Similarly, apart from Ron and Rand Paul, there are very few Republican office holders who have blasted Bush’s Iraq policy. Most Republican office holders supported McCain and Graham in calling for direct USA assistance (and even military operations) in the Syrian Civil War. Most Republican office holders view Russia as an enemy, rather than as a potential partner. All of these views are contrary to Trump’s foreign and military policies.
Thus, if the Trump Train (Choo Choo) indeed smashes head on into Dead Man’s Cove, then we shall see the GOP in short order return to its free trade and neoconservative positions. Even on the issue of illegal immigration, a post-Trump GOP likely will embrace some sort of amnesty for the illegal aliens already in country coupled with a stronger border and visa enforcement mechanism. There will be no stomach for mass deportations of illegal aliens.
Now, if Trump wins the White House, then his host party will continue to be at odds with him on these pivotal issues, unless more “America First” politicians are elected in the next few election cycles. It is naive to think that a Trump victory automatically changes the positions of the vast majority of Republican office holders with respect to issues like trade and interventionism. That change may happen, but it would require “America First” politicians eventually outnumbering Reagan Republicans in the House and the Senate over time.
As for the millions of Republican voters who embraced Trump, I am not so sure that most Republican voters also signed on to his trade protectionism and his non-interventionism. His position on these “America First” type issues polled well with Independents who voted for him in droves in open Republican primaries. Nevertheless, in closed Republican primaries he did not do so well against typical free trade/interventionist Republicans. Already, pollsters have concluded that Trump would not have won the nomination if the New Hampshire and the South Carolina GOP primaries had been closed primaries.
Thus, as much as I love my First Class accommodations on the Trump Train (Choo Choo), I am not so naive as to think that the Republican Party is now an “America First” Party, apart from its Presidential nominee.
Senator Cruz recognizes this fact, which is why he is willing to stand out as the ultimate Anti-Trump. He knows that the party leadership will remain free traders (like Cruz had been before temporarily abandoning the TPP during the primaries) and interventionists (Cruz never abandoned interventionism). He also knows that if conservatives are able to close more GOP primaries in the next few years (the purpose of the rule change sponsored by Cruz surrogate Ken Cuccinelli on the RNC Convention floor two days ago), then an Anti-Trump will be in a stronger position to take on a President Trump in the GOP primaries in the 2020 election cycle than past challengers of incumbents.
Where Cruz fails is that he comes across as too self-serving. Even most GOP conservatives who distrust Trump now want to rally around the flag to defeat the Clinton Crime Syndicate. Cruz would have been better off not speaking at the convention. If Trump loses in November, then he will not be blamed for the loss. If Trump wins, then he can be a critic of Trump from within the Senate. Now, Cruz had better hope that Trump wins; because if not, then he will be branded one of the reasons why Hillary won the White House and the political left won the Supreme Court.
Cruz’s Achilles heel is his unlikeable demeanor, which makes every one of his moves seem that much more self-serving than even what we would expect from a typical politician. He is also too intelligent for his own good. He is an attention seeker, which is not particularly new in Washington D.C., but because he thinks that he can outsmart every one of us, he sometimes seeks attention in ways that hurt the larger cause. I am reminded of his “filibuster” (not really a filibuster since debate on the bill had not even started yet) where he received a lot of headlines but in return gave the Democrats more time to ratify court and commission nominations that otherwise would not have happened.
One more point: Though it may make sense to be the Anti-Trump, given that most of the party apparatus will remain contrary to the “America First” agenda, the better tactic would be to lay claim to that position without being seen as a reason why Trump loses if in fact he does lose in November. History shows that GOP politicians who simply refuse to endorse the GOP nominee lose more than they gain in the long term. Party activists do have long memories. Thus, in 1964, Rockefeller refused to endorse Goldwater; and many party activists abandoned Rockefeller accordingly. On the other hand, in 1976, Reagan eventually supported Ford; and Reagan lived on to take the nomination four years later.