Avik Roy, disaffected Republican, surveyed the upstairs room of a tony Palo Alto restaurant where a group of journalists and conservative intellectuals was sipping cocktails before a private dinner. “It’s like that scene in Titanic,” he remarked to me, “where they know the ship is going down, and the conductor decides there’s nothing to do but keep the orchestra playing.”
In an alternate universe, Roy, who is 43 and whose first name is pronounced “Oh-vick,” might be spending his autumn pushing policy papers as an adviser to Republican presidential nominee Marco Rubio. The dinner we were attending—the prelude to a policy seminar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution—might be teeming with excitement about the intellectual possibilities of a Rubio administration. Roy, a health-care expert who has advised Rubio, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney, once looked forward to 2016 as a year of Republican opportunity, when the party would choose a leader capable of reorienting it toward the future.
But in the real world, Donald Trump was running on a platform directly opposed to the pro-trade, pro-immigration, pro-small-government ideology of conservatives like Roy. Many of those at the Hoover gathering, Roy included, feared they would not have a party to come back to post-Trump. They are among a class of conservative operatives, thinkers, and staffers who have spent the campaign season adrift, pondering the causes of their party’s disruption and looking nervously to the future. Fifty Republican national-security experts signed an open letter declaring Trump a danger to the republic; several staffers quit the Republican National Committee rather than work to elect Trump. Allegiances have been sundered, and professional trajectories thrown into confusion. One former top RNC staffer told me he no longer speaks to his once-close colleagues; a conservative policy expert who runs a think tank in Washington, D.C., says he’s become adept at steering conversations away from politics and toward college football. Several Republicans I know, finding the campaign intolerable, have rediscovered old hobbies.