There are many potential outcomes to a Donald Trump GOP nomination. And every one of them is a disaster for conservatives.
Though, I should start by defining my terms, since “conservative” and “Republican” no longer really have any useful ideological meaning. When I say “conservatives,” I’m not only talking about elites who throw around polysyllabic words like “insalubrious” or oppose the mass deportations of illegal immigrants. I’m describing someone who broadly supports a Goldwater/Reagan vision of economic, regulatory and foreign policy. This includes some “establishment” types — who deserve much of the blame and all of the unpleasant fallout — and many who are legitimately interested in furthering conservative ideals.
And when I refer to “Trumpkins,” I’m speaking about people who, whether they explicitly say so or not, view contemporary conservatism as a dead end. Either it’s because they’ve become frustrated by the perceived (and sometimes real) failures of its philosophy and politics, or because they’ve never really been enthralled with those ideas in the first place. Their instincts are nationalistic and protectionist, and their anxiety is primarily fueled by illegal immigration and trade.
Phyllis Schlafly, one-time proponent of limited-government, distilled Trump’s paleo-appeal like so: “If we don’t stop immigration — this torrent of immigrants coming in — we’re not going to be America anymore…” Who cares about low marginal tax rates if some freedom-hating foreigner is taking your job?
These people will not be placated. Not if they lose, and definitely not if they win. Unless unforeseen events alter the dynamics of American politics, it’s difficult to imagine conventional Republicans and Trumpkins inhabiting the same space after this is all done.
I look forward to loathing three major political parties.
Now, if Trump prevails in the primaries, principled small-government conservatives (however many are left) will be faced with a distasteful choice: they can either back the nominee, picked fairly by the rank-and-file of the party, or they can disregard party politics and actively try and sink him.
Support Trump? A Disaster
Those who decide to endorse Trump because of partisan loyalty will also be supporting a 45-percent tariff on Chinese goods, policies barring immigrants based purely on religion, and whatever other half-baked policy ideas spring from Trump’s mind. And they should be really comfortable with Trumpism (and with that his many liberal positions) because they’ll be spending the rest of their careers justifying the support. For those who think they can embrace neutrality to escape this fight, their silence will be treated as tacit endorsement by liberals and treachery by Trump’s fans. It’s conceivable that a number of local races will suffer in these intraparty skirmishes, hurting conservatives in state races and probably Congress.
More distressingly, at least for some of us, is the prospect that Trump’s outlook will turn out to be more popular than anyone imagines. Maybe a flood of candidates will begin aping his populism and succeed. Maybe Trump begins to transform American discourse into something more closely resembling European politics, where nationalists and socialists argue about who should run the state apparatus.
Fight Trump? A Disaster
For those who decide to actively oppose Trump — and you assume many factions on the Right would — the prospects are not much better. There’s no modern precedent for a party’s establishment undercutting its nominee, so it’s improbable the Republican Party would participate in torpedoing Trump. The time for that has passed. (One day perhaps, Reince Priebus will explain how he let a populist liberal reality-show host win a major party’s nomination.)
Many conservatives will undoubtedly toy with the idea of running a third-party candidate (not as easy as it sounds, when you consider the logistics and the factional nature of Republicans today), which would likely only exist to spoil the GOP nominee’s prospects and challenge his risible claim to conservatism.
The important question for conservatives is: Would they rather a have Republican president with views antithetical to their own or Hillary Clinton as president? Would they rather have a Republican who may cause irreparably damage to their brand, or Bernie Sanders? Would they want a GOP monopoly in D.C., led by Trump, or continue with gridlock as the purer opposition party? Though, you imagine that helping put Hillary (or Bernie) in the White House would blow up any hope of a healthy right-of-center consensus for many years to come.
If Trump Loses? A Disaster
If conservative intellectuals and many of their institutions and leaders fail to back the nominee, Trump’s fans will hold those elites culpable for the loss, further feeding the frustrations that had alienated them in the first place. The idea that a bunch of know-it-alls can undermine the democratic process will only generate more anger and paranoia. Do Trump boosters seem like the sort of group that will embrace rapprochement and constructive change after having an election stolen from them?
If Trump Wins? A Disaster
Even more terrifying for so many of us is the prospect of a successful Trump presidency. Even without Congress, as Obama has shown, a president can accomplish many destructive things. Though probably not enough to satisfy Trumpkins, who will undoubtedly be disappointed. Presidents can’t just slap huge tariffs on other countries without Congress, and they can’t make Mexico pay for border fences, nor take oil from countries in the Middle East, nor will he be able to deport 13 million illegal immigrants. When this becomes a reality, I suspect his fans will still blame the establishment for its lack of willpower, support, and patriotism.
And, of course, finally, Trump might lose the GOP nomination (I still don’t believe he’ll win, but I’m cognizant of the fact that this is probably wishful thinking.) Then, it’s likely that the Republican Party will go back to business as usual. Which is a disaster of whole different kind.