Following Donald Trump’s resounding double-digit victories in Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire, party leaders are urging Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich to drop out in order to clear the field for the inevitable nominee and allow him to concentrate his fire on Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, his two potential general election opponents.
Wait. They’re not?
The whole point of compressing the primary schedule and backloading it with winner-take-all contests was to accelerate the momentum of a nominee with enough appeal to win in New England, the deep South and the Mountain West, then permit him to seal the nomination early and pivot to the general election. The Republican Party has found that candidate. So where are the cries for everyone else to stand down? If Rubio had just completed Trump’s trifecta, every Republican within earshot would be saying it’s over, and the media narrative would write itself.
Trump, however, poses a grave threat to the Republican Party that goes well beyond his prospects in the general election. Short on ideological fealty and long on ego, Trump as standard-bearer threatens to reshape the party in his image, to the lasting detriment of economic and social conservatives. Trump has been all over the place on gut-level issues like abortion and gay rights and has shown no inclination to shrink the federal government to the size where you can drown it in a bathtub. But what he lacks in issue consistency he more than makes up for in his ability to give voice to the darkest inclinations of a reactionary id. We don’t know what a Trump administration would do about health insurance costs, but it isn’t too difficult to imagine what his inaugural address will sound like.
For Republicans, this would be a bitterly ironic conclusion to the post-Romney period, which began promisingly enough with a report of the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project – widely referred to as the “autopsy” report – designed to ameliorate the unpleasant radical edges of Obama-era conservatism and liberate the party to compete in a 21st century electorate by embracing a tone of inclusion, tolerance and respect for emerging groups. But the party’s most vocal stakeholders responded to a more nativist message, so party leaders jettisoned the tolerance and accrued the benefits of a fired-up base that gave them immense off-year victories. Sure, it was risky, but the danger to the party’s national prospects remained hypothetical and far off. Only now is it apparent how they were stoking the stakeholders who would provide the energy for Trump’s hostile takeover.
On this score, it is amusing to watch party elites and some in the older reaches of the mainstream media struggle to explain Trump’s rise and fumble over how to stop it, when it is those very elites and opinion leaders who enabled it by playing to the worst instincts of the base for short-term gain or by not calling it out when it was happening. If there is an origin point for the nightmare that is the Republican nomination contest, it is the decision by party leaders in 2009 to delegitimize the new African American president, work for his failure, eradicate his accomplishments and make sure he leaves no legacy. It was a strategy predicated on the belief that the 2008 electorate was a blip, not a trend, and it committed the party to position itself against the dominant social and demographic trends of the new century. The strategy continues to be employed today with threats by Senate Republicans not to act on any Obama Supreme Court nominee, but such legislative posturing now looks weak in comparison to Trump’s mighty rhetoric. In their failure to deliver on their promised repeal of the Obama coalition, party elites have lost out to someone willing to swat them aside and deliver what they couldn’t by strength of personality and force of will.
If Trump secures the nomination he will own the Republican Party. Establishment Republicans will then face a bleak choice. They can try to do business with the new management, throw out the autopsy report for good, and participate in redefining the party as a reactionary vehicle for Trump’s worldview. Or they can rebel. Vulnerable Republican senators will have permanent scheduling conflicts when the standard bearer comes to town. Party leaders will speak in vague Rubioesque generalities about their nominee to give the simultaneous impression of support and distance. But this is not an enduring strategy for a party as an institution. With Trump leaving no doubt about who’s boss, the only remaining move will be to defect. But to where?