Perhaps the Freedom Caucus members were simply political opportunists, using “purity” as a cudgel against GOP leadership to advance their careers. Maybe they actually bought the right-wing echo chamber myth that the movement had been “betrayed” by congressional leaders — although the latter incessantly voted to repeal Obamacare, held on to the bulk of the George W. Bush tax cuts and bottled up immigration reform. The only way to stand out, feed the right-wing echo chamber and get financial support from cynical Beltway outfits (e.g. Heritage Action) was to turn conservative anger against the administration toward Republican targets. Then again, maybe this young crop of right-wingers who have little firsthand memory of the Reagan presidency have been confused all along, mistaking anger for ideological fervor and nastiness for integrity. It could be a bit of all three.
The big exception to the political-ideological muddle is the head of the hell-no Republicans in Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who led the shutdown and tried to outflank Trump on the right. Cruz’s decision to repudiate Trump and withhold his endorsement can, depending on your perspective, be seen as politically brave or simply better in the long term if those deep-red-state voters come to see Trump as a phony and a loser, thereby validating Cruz’s decision to reject Trump. Cruz has been blamed for normalizing Trump in 2015 as he praised and sometimes fawned over Trump, but no one can accuse him of running for cover after the nomination by hypocritical praise for Trump — as former adversary Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has done. Those close to Cruz argue that he used up more capital than anyone in trying to defeat him and in denying him support after Trump sealed the primary.
How all this washes out after November depends on the margin of Trump’s defeat and the ability of #NeverTrump Republicans to hold those who pushed Trump accountable. Trumpkins, frantic to escape blame for the unfolding debacle, now point fingers at everyone but themselves. But it is the Trumpkins in the media and in elected office who have the serious, maybe fatal, problem: They’ve been revealed as ideological frauds and political charlatans. They — like Trump — cared nothing for actual conservative ideas or for the health of the GOP. They and the outside groups that fund them will carry the burden that comes with political stupidity and hypocrisy. (The same is true of some supply-side zealots who convinced themselves that Trump was sane, was a fiscal conservative and was capable of passing huge tax cuts disproportionately helping the rich. They are wrong on all three counts.)
After the election, the Republicans who opposed both the Freedom Caucus and Trump — including moderates, hawks, conservative reformers, Republican wonks, sincere students of free markets (who reject anti-immigrant and anti-free trade hokum) — have the opportunity to repudiate the phony purists and the Trumpkin nativists. In calling for a more civil tone and a proactive reform agenda, these Republicans, like the post-1988 Democrats, will urge the party to get back into the mainstream, both in tone and policy. They will look as skeptically at Cruz, who many perceive as responsible for feeding a groundswell of irrational anger, as they do at Trump apologists.
These Republicans will not have the field to themselves, however. It’s not clear whether Cruz and allies such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) as well as right-wing Beltway groups and tea party organizations will urge a return to pre-Trump, staunch right-wing positions (e.g. opposition to gay marriage, opposition to immigration, a balanced-budget amendment, supply-side tax cuts). If they are more politically savvy, Cruz and others will have internalized the right lessons in 2016. If so, they will recognize that the appetite for extreme conservatism (i.e. the part of the electorate identifying as “very conservative”) is not sufficiently large to win the nomination. It has also been eclipsed by events (e.g. gay marriage is now established in 50 states) and has to a great extent been sullied by the hypocrisy of the Freedom Caucus.
If they’ve accurately mapped out the Republican landscape, Cruz-type conservatives will still try to maneuver themselves to the right flank of the party, but this time with a more positive, attainable agenda. That would require Cruz and others to stop hedging their bets on foreign policy by pandering to libertarians; develop tax plans that are not seen as boons to the rich; attack cronyism; and address anxiety over globalism without resorting to protectionist snake oil or opposition to economically advantageous legal immigration. It may also require that they go to war not with other Republicans but with the Clinton administration when it inevitably overreaches. Cruz, in particular, is going to need to demonstrate new maturity in tone and relationships with fellow Republicans.
In sum, Trump’s defeat will create a political opportunity for moderates and right-wingers alike. They will try to dissociate themselves from Trump and Trumpism, but how they revamp the GOP in the wake of a blistering defeat will be the subject of much debate in 2017 and beyond.