The Republican surrender has begun. Having described Donald Trump as an unacceptable, unconservative, dangerous demagogue, the party establishment appears to be making its peace with the man who keeps winning primaries.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page argued vociferously against Trump for months, pointing out that he is a huckster and a catastrophe, warning that “if Donald Trump becomes the voice of conservatives, conservatism will implode along with him.” Yet this week, it ended a lead editorial urging Republicans to “continue to see if Mr. Trump can begin to act like a President . . . and above all to decide who can prevent another progressive-left Presidency.”
Karl Rove has also spent months denouncing Trump, starting off by calling him a “complete idiot” and detailing his many faults and flaws, predicting that were he the nominee, the Republican Party would lose the White House and the Senate and erode its majority in the House “dramatically.” This week he also changed his tune, offering some warm and friendly advice to the front-runner to “raise his game.”
Marco Rubio has called Trump a “con artist” and compared him to “third-world strongmen.” He has said Trump has “no ideas of any substance,” “has spent a career sticking it to working people,” is trying to “prey upon people’s fears,” and encourages violence at his rallies. But, “at this moment,” he says he intends to support whomever emerges as the Republican nominee. So do John McCain and Paul Ryan, who has taken the rare step of intervening in the campaign three times to reprimand Trump for his ideas and rhetoric. Even Lindsey Graham, who has called Trump “the most unprepared person I’ve ever met to be commander in chief,” will not say he will not vote for him. Indeed, there is currently just one Republican senator who has committed to not voting for Trump.
Ironically, conservatives today are in something of the same position that Republican moderates were in 1964, as Barry Goldwater steamed toward the nomination. It is difficult to understand today how dramatic a break this was for the Republicans. As Geoffrey Kabaservice documents in his illuminating book, “Rule and Ruin,” the party had prided itself on its progressive stand on race from Abraham Lincoln onward. Goldwater, on the other hand, opposed the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to integrate schools in Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 Civil Rights act. A hundred years of Republican work on these issues would be thrown away, the moderates felt, were they to nominate Goldwater.
Trump marks, in many ways, an even larger break from the past than Goldwater. The modern Republican Party has been devoted to free markets and free trade, social conservatism, an expansionist foreign policy and fiscal discipline, especially on entitlements. Remember that the speech that launched Ronald Reagan’s career was an attack on Medicare. On every one of these issues, Trump either openly disagrees or — as with abortion — has a past track record of disagreement.
Over the past decade, Republican support for immigration and free trade has been collapsing. But Trump’s nomination would transform the party into a blue-collar, populist, nationalist movement with a racial element — much like many others in the Western world. This would be a very different party from Reagan’s or Ryan’s.
When I was in graduate school, we were told to study carefully a seminal 1955 essay on American politics by the scholar V.O. Key on critical elections. Key’s thesis was that every generation or so, there is an election that changes the preexisting groupings of voters in a way that endures for years, even decades. Scholars debate which elections were ones that realigned American politics. Most generally agree that 1932 was one, bringing together Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition of northern liberals, urban ethnics and Southern whites to form a Democratic majority. Key actually sees 1928 as the critical election, because it foreshadowed the 1932 coalition.
2016 might well go down as another such election, one that scrambles the old order but perhaps without setting up a new one. In this respect, it looks like 1964, also an election that realigned politics, shifting Southern whites to the Republican Party ever since. Then , too, there was enormous energy, new voters and a candidate who thrilled his supporters. Then, too, the establishment could not muster the courage and unity to oppose the front-runner, scared to push back against the energy and devotion of the new populist forces.
So instead the party went to the polls in November divided — and lost 44 states.