If Trump loses, as we think is likely but by no means certain, there will be a furious battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Trumpism without Trump will lack attraction if he loses decisively. (Those thinking a landslide is in the works should keep in mind that the electorate is highly polarized. Moreover, with a limited number of safe states in play, each party has a solid batch of electoral votes. It is hard, in other words, to duplicate a 1964, a 1972 or a 1984 victory.) Trump is right about one thing: No one is interested in a loser.
The reason for the loss, if it comes, will be furiously debated. The establishment sold us out! The Trumpkins were deluded! Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) divided the party! Long after dueling cable TV and print and online pundits stop arguing, two paths for the GOP — assuming the party remains mostly intact — will remain.
Cruz will certainly lay claim to the leadership of the party as the true conservative, both as someone who stood up to Trump and as the runner-up in 2016. His allies may include those seeking to return to the pre-Trump conservative hymnal, reengage evangelical Christian conservatives (who suffered a massive blow in prestige and influence in 2016) and favor a more libertarian economic message coupled with stiff opposition to immigration. You can imagine some Trump endorsers (Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas) joining with those previously in the #NeverTrump camp. (Vocal and enthusiastic Trumpkins will likely find the party inhospitable if Trump loses.)
On the other side, a group of more reform-minded conservatives arguing for innovation and expansion of the party’s appeal will fight with Cruz, et al., to shape the identity of the party. In the reform group may be both Trump endorsers, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), and those who refused to kiss the ring, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.).
The reformers will argue that with the passage of time, issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion will fade (especially after Trump almost entirely dropped social issues and cheered the convention delegates for defending LGBT Americans), leaving the party to appeal to younger, more libertarian and more secular voters. They’ll also point out that yet another election demolished the notion that one can win a presidential election with very few minority votes. Noting the diversity of the electorate, they will push to address the needs of Trump voters (after Trump is gone) with realistic, effective policy. Instead of returning to tax cuts, the balanced-budget amendment and other 1980s talking points, the reformers will present conservative solutions to an array of issues, with the aim of making government more nimble and accountable. On foreign policy, however, one can imagine more agreement than disagreement and a return to a internationalism, perhaps a bit tempered by the experience of long wars.
The party could split in two or, alternatively, the Cruz and reformer branches could duke it out for mastery of the party. One major concern will be the structure and rules of the 2020 primaries and how to control the number of candidates so that voters quickly get down to a few competitive choices. They might even consider a requirement — gasp! — that someone have been a Republican for, say, five years. It would be a fine idea to institute mandatory disclosure of tax records. In any event, a Trump defeat would bring quite a bloodletting at the Republican National Committee and in leadership roles.
If Trump loses, especially if Trump loses big (by more than five points), it will be amusing to watch various individuals and factions disassociate themselves from him. It’ll be hard to find people even willing to admit voting for him. It’s not clear, however, whether there would still be a single center-right party and, if so, what it would look for and stand for. The only consolation to 2016 — if the Republicans blow a perfect opportunity to win the White House — will be the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and begin anew.