In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 presidential race, I ran into a prominent former Republican governor in D.C. I asked him what he thought the party needed to do to solve its increasingly problematic demographic issues and the ever-widening chasm between tea party conservatives and the party establishment.
"We may need another '64," he told me.
That, of course, is a reference to the 1964 election when conservatives got the candidate they wanted — Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater — and watched as his message proved too far to the ideological right for a large majority of the country. Goldwater got just 52 electoral votes and lost the popular vote to Lyndon Johnson by almost 16 million. The reckoning occasioned by that massive loss produced Richard Nixon, an establishment type who was tonally much more moderate than Goldwater. Nixon's convincing wins in 1968 and 1972 were, to hear Republicans tell it, the direct result of conservatives getting what they wanted in 1964 and seeing that their vision for the country wasn't a majority view.
There was some hope within the Republican establishment that something similar would happen in 2016 — particularly once the field narrowed to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Nominating Cruz, the argument went, would be Goldwater all over again — he would be too conservative for the country, lose, and in so doing, allow the party establishment to push back on the idea put forward by the Texas senator and other conservatives that the reason the GOP lost in 2008 and 2012 was because they nominated someone who was not a conservative enough conservative.
Then Cruz lost Indiana to Trump and promptly dropped out of the presidential race. Which leaves Trump as the party nominee, a pick that creates any number of problems for the GOP but none so consequential as this: There will be no conclusion to the latest iteration of the long-running fight for control between the establishment and the base of the party.
Why? Because Trump is, fundamentally, non-ideological as a politician. That's not just because he was once a Democrat, gave lots of money to Democrats or was in favor of abortion rights. It's because, outside of his hard-line stance on immigration and wall-building, he lacks any deeply held conservative beliefs. To the extent we know them, Trump's views on domestic policy aren't all that traditionally conservative.
The reason conservatives within the rank and file of the party have responded to Trump is almost entirely tonal. He's willing to say things about Democrats — and even many Republicans — that lead people to believe he's a fighter for the conservative cause. Trump's appeal simply isn't rooted in issues. How could it be, given that he has offered only the vaguest outlines — whether intentionally or unintentionally is up for debate — of where he stands on almost every issue?
Trump is a man without a country in his own party. He is an island all his own — a big, beautiful, luxurious, classy island, but still just an island. Movement conservatives are making clear that Trump is not one of theirs. The establishment — from Paul Ryan to Lindsey Graham to Jeb Bush — is doing the same.
That seems just fine by Trump, who said over the weekend that the Republican Party doesn't really need to be unified for him to win. (Fact check: Almost certainly not true.) And if he wins the White House, it won't matter. The Republican Party will be the Trump Party — whether movement or establishment conservatives like it. The party will be rebuilt in Trump's likeness.
But if he doesn't win — and he starts the general election as a major underdog — then his lack of associations with the two main tribes within the GOP seems virtually certain to make the chasm between the two sides wider rather than narrower post-2016.
Conservatives will insist that Trump lost because he wasn't conservative enough. Establishment types will lay Trump's loss at the feet of his embrace of the most conservative position possible on immigration. No one will agree. It won't be until the 2020 election that either side can hope to accrue enough evidence to win the argument. By then the party will have spent more than a decade out of the White House.
Trump isn't Goldwater. It would be a lot easier for Republicans if he was.