It is impossible for some in the media and in the conservative movement to conceive of American politics without a Republican Party. It is a failure of imagination but also of moral spine.
The Republican National Committee declares that the party will unite around whomever is the nominee. The Republican Jewish Coalition, whom I contacted, cannot bring itself to condemn Donald Trump for feigning ignorance about David Duke and refusing three times to disavow him and the KKK on cable TV. (Thankfully, the Anti-Defamation League did not make the same error.) Otherwise thoughtful talk show hosts like Hugh Hewitt proclaim that Republicans must support Trump if he is the nominee because Hillary Clinton is worse.
These are not bad people, nor do they support Trump. But they fail to recognize that there are only two choices in 2016: Someone other than Trump gets the nomination, or there is no unified GOP (at the least for the 2016 presidential race, and perhaps permanently). Ironically, it is sometimes more difficult to recognize a tectonic shift is underway than it is to recognize small shifts. The former prompts denial and a desire to cling to what is known, even if it what is known is on the verge of extinction.
Nevertheless, conservatives and the larger grouping that makes up the GOP should understand more is at stake than a single election and a single Supreme Court opening. For one thing, if Trump gets the nomination, he will lose, overwhelmingly. Someone with negatives as high as his and as temperamentally and ideologically erratic as he is will not get 270 electoral votes. Many Republicans will stay home; others will vote for Hillary Clinton. With his nomination and the ensuing landslide, the Senate and possibly the House would be lost.
As we have discussed, if Trump is the nominee — and we are still not there yet, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) rises to the occasion — all sorts of interesting possibilities unfold. A third presidential candidate is quite likely, but more important, a new party. Let’s face it: There is a lot deserving of abandonment in the GOP right now. Nativism has thoroughly infected its agenda, turning otherwise well-rounded conservatives into small-minded xenophobes. The inability to recognize lost causes (reversing gay marriage) and the refusal to address real ones (e.g. poverty) have paralyzed too many Republicans. The search for ideological purity and support for fringe candidates as well as a nihilistic approach to government personified in the shutdown have gripped vast swaths of the party. The opportunity now may present itself to leave all of this behind, to form a 21st-century party reflective of today’s United States and with a coherent vision of governance.
Some would prefer a “Constitutional Party” stressing limited government, federalism and the rule of law. But frankly, this does not have enough “sell” for a national party and is not tailored to a positive agenda. The successor to the GOP cannot be merely be against things; it must be for ideas that address needs of ordinary Americans.
The answer should come from the reform agenda that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is championing. As he describes it, his effort involves applying conservative principles to a range of real-world problems, including poverty, declining upward mobility, stagnant wages, low economic, education (both K-12 and higher ed) and loss of American influence and standing in the world. We have discussed at length its intellectual underpinnings in the reform conservative movement. But constitutionalists need not fret. Both Ryan and the larger reform conservative effort rely on restoring the proper balance between federal and state power and between executive and legislative action. However, as former Texas governor Rick Perry elegantly put it during his run, conservatives should be as concerned with the 14th Amendment as they are with the 10th.
Whatever follows the GOP would also mark a change in tone and temperament. Restraint, tolerance and a preference for gradual innovation over radical revolution — the original hallmarks of modern conservatism — should predominate. In other words, everything that Trump is not.
In sum, Republican primary voters tomorrow and for the weeks that follow have more than a choice among four or five candidates. They actually have a binary choice: Rejection of Trumpism or the dissolution of the GOP, which will inaugurate a new party and a new phase for center-right politics. For those on the right appalled by Trump and the primordial proto-fascistic goo from whence he emerged, the bad news is that they may well lose the next election. The good news is that what follows may be better for center-right politics and, more important, the country. And it may help keep the Senate and the House out of the hands of the increasingly leftist Democratic Party.