The last 24 hours of GOP activity have been genuinely interesting for political scientists.
On the one hand, a whole cavalcade of Republican intellectuals, think-tankers, and talking heads, led by the National Review’s Rich Lowry, has mounted a full-throated assault on Donald Trump. William F. Buckley would be proud of NR’s lead editorial, replete with words like “coquettish,” “excrescences,” and “claques”:
If Trump were to become the president, the Republican nominee, or even a failed candidate with strong conservative support, what would that say about conservatives? The movement that ground down the Soviet Union and took the shine, at least temporarily, off socialism would have fallen in behind a huckster. The movement concerned with such “permanent things” as constitutional government, marriage, and the right to life would have become a claque for a Twitter feed.
There’s also a whole panoply of conservative writers who contributed to a symposium against Trump, including Glenn Beck, William Kristol, Yuval Levin, John Podhoretz, and Thomas Sowell. The Weekly Standard has put out a similar package, including this from Kristol himself.
Is Rush Limbaugh right, that “Nationalism and populism have overtaken conservatism in terms of appeal”? And is he right that American conservatives have nothing to do in response but step aside and usher in their European and Latin American-style successors? Are the politics of Latin America and Europe to be our new normal? Are today’s conservatives supposed to appease and make their peace with such politics? Is the task of today’s American conservatism to normalize Trump and Trumpism?
As someone writing a book about the Ideas Industry, I should be all giddy at this natural experiment of conservative intellectuals lining up against Trump. And as someone who has looked at Trump’s foreign policy worldview, I should be really ecstatic that he’s facing some serious pushback.
But as Jonathan Martin reported in the New York Times, and as my Washington Post colleagues Robert Costa, Philip Rucker, and David Fahrenthold report, the GOP establishment has made a very different calculation. From the latter story:
The Republican establishment — once seen as the force that would destroy Donald Trump’s outsider candidacy — is now learning to live with it, with some elected and unelected leaders saying they see an upside to Trump as the nominee.
In the past few days, Trump has received unlikely public praise from GOP luminaries who said they would prefer him to his main rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas….
This warming toward Trump comes after establishment favorites such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have failed to reach the top tier. It signals that, among the party’s entrenched elites, there is a growing fear that none of those candidates may be able to beat both Trump and Cruz.
Many have decided that Trump — for all his faults — is better. For one thing, many Republicans in Congress especially despise Cruz, who has a history of picking long-shot fights and blaming other Republicans when is unsuccessful.
Indeed, there is article after article backing up the notion that no national GOP politician or lobbyist can stand Ted Cruz (almost as if the Establishment got together and consciously decided to talk to the press about this very topic). Or as Nate Silver put it, “So far, the GOP’s actions are conspicuously anti-Cruz more than they are pro-Trump.” In essence, the last three years of Cruz’s political behavior are coming back to haunt him.
So which GOP establishment will matter more: the party leaders/lobbyists or the party intellectuals? If you believe that The Party Decides, then you would have to put your money on the elected leaders and formerly elected lobbyists. As much as they want to claim the mantle of faux populism, the writers at National Review and Weekly Standard are, by definition, pretty damn elitist and intellectual. As Rush Limbaugh noted this week, the primary has revealed the gap between those people and GOP voters:
When I talk about the conservative movement, to me I’m talking about Washington. I’m not talking about you in the grass roots. I’m talking about the establishment, conservative media, the brainiacs, the think tanks, the professors… I think what’s actually being revealed here is that the Republican Party itself and even some of the conservative intelligentsia has misjudged and overestimated the conservatism of the base, negatively. They have a negative connotation of conservatism. They don’t like it, obviously.
So that’s that, it would seem. Except that there’s one other thing to think about:
Maybe the biggest mistake of "The Party Decides" is to presume party elites are sophisticated when they're fully capable of being idiots.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) January 22, 2016
The reports this week contradict each other on whether the GOP establishment thinks Trump can win. Costa, Rucker, and Fahrenthold say yes. Martin says.. well, read the following:
Of course, this willingness to accommodate Mr. Trump is driven in part by the fact that few among the Republican professional class believe he would win a general election. In the minds of these Republicans, it would be better to effectively rent the party to Mr. Trump for four months this fall, through the general election, than risk turning it over Mr. Cruz for at least four years, as either the president or the next-in-line leader for the 2020 nomination.
Every time I read that paragraph, I think of this:
Everyone in Washington has spent the last six months underestimating Trump. It seems to me that they’re now underestimating his rather Caesarist tendencies. The notion that this guy would only hijack the Republican Party for four months strikes me as, well, idiotic.
The deeper question to ask — and one that I have no answer to — is how the GOP got itself into a situation where it’s choosing between a vulgar nationalist and an ideologue who alienates those who have to work with him.