Can the Republican Party Survive Trump?

The GOP frontrunner’s surprising staying power has inspired soul-searching and agony among party elites.

Al Graham / AP

What is happening to the Republican Party? I put that question to Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina and basement-dwelling presidential candidate, who was getting ready to hold a campaign event in Hooksett, New Hampshire. “Well, the front-runner is crazy,” Graham said.

He was referring, of course, to Donald Trump, the GOP’s seemingly unstoppable chart-topper, who has survived outrage after outrage that would have ruined a conventional candidate. He commands, on average, double the support, among potential Republican primary voters, of his nearest challenger. Graham—who is running in 15th place—calls him “a huckster billionaire whose political ideas are gibberish.” And while he expects voters eventually to come to their senses, he said, “I think a certain amount of damage has been done already.”

As Trump evinces surprising staying power atop the Republican field, nervous party members increasingly fret that he is hurting the image of the GOP and damaging its eventual nominee—who most assume will not be Trump. The most obvious problem is Trump’s outspoken opposition to immigration and immigrants, which has offended Hispanics—a fast-growing voter demographic the party can’t afford to lose ground with—and dragged other candidates into a discussion of inflammatory ideas like ending birthright citizenship.

But many Republican strategists, donors, and officeholders fret that the harm goes deeper than a single voting bloc. Trump’s candidacy has blasted open the GOP’s longstanding fault lines at a time when the party hoped for unity. His gleeful, attention-hogging boorishness—and the large crowds that have cheered it—cements a popular image of the party as standing for reactionary anger rather than constructive policies. As Democrats jeer that Trump has merely laid bare the true soul of the GOP, some Republicans wonder, with considerable anguish, whether they’re right. As the conservative writer Ben Domenech asked in an essay in The Federalist last week, “Are Republicans for freedom or white identity politics?”

“There is a faction that would actually rather burn down the entire Republican Party in hopes they can rebuild it in their image,” Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican admaker, told me. For his outspoken antagonism to Trump, including an op-ed calling Trump voters “Hillary’s new best friends,” Wilson has received a deluge of bile from Trump’s army of Internet trolls; his family has been threatened and his clients have been harassed. He worries that the party is on the brink of falling apart. “There’s got to be either a reconciliation or a division,” he said. “There’s still a greater fraction of people who are limited-government conservatives than people motivated by the personality cult of Donald Trump.”

The Trump drama, Wilson and others note, comes at a time when the probable Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is struggling with image problems, a protracted scandal, and her own party’s divisions—but the focus on Trump has prevented Republicans from capitalizing on Clinton’s troubles. “He’s framing up a scenario where the election in the fall doesn’t become a referendum on the tenure of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but on the Republican positions advanced by Donald Trump—which are not particularly Republican, and not particularly conservative,” Wilson said.

But the establishment feels embattled—and helpless. A Politico survey of Republican insiders in Iowa and New Hampshire, published Friday, found 70 percent saying Trump’s immigration plan was harmful to the party’s image. “He’s solidly put an anchor around the neck of our party, and we’ll sink because of it,” one Iowa Republican said. The right’s leading writers—George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Barone—have excoriated Trump, to seemingly no avail. Trump doesn’t need them; he has his own cheering section in the likes of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Trump’s rise has highlighted the distance between the Republican establishment that favors cutting Social Security, increasing immigration, and expanding free trade, and the party base that, like Trump, wants the opposite.

Many analysts blamed Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss on his rightward tack on immigration during the primaries, when he urged “self-deportation.” That was a major conclusion of the Republican National Committee’s postmortem report after Romney’s loss. “In 2012 we were talking about electrified fences and self-deportation; in 2016 we’re talking about birthright citizenship and forced, mass deportation,” Peter Wehner, a former aide to George W. Bush, told me. “That’s not a step in the right direction, and we’re doing that because of Trump.”

Party elites can already envision the attack ads of sad-eyed children being torn from their parents. The harsh immigration rhetoric doesn’t only offend Latino voters, they say—it hurts the party with other minority groups, with moderates and independents, with young voters and with women. And as other candidates have been pushed to take sides on Trump’s plans, they, too, have wandered into problematic territory. Several have said they agree with parts of his immigration agenda.

Even Graham, a longtime proponent of immigration reform, has said he would consider ending birthright citizenship, though he told me any changes would be aimed at the small group of “birth tourists” and would not apply to current citizens. But Graham said Trump’s immigration proposals were “offensive.” “If he is the voice and face of the Republican party, I think our allies are shaking their heads and our enemies are licking their chops,” he said.

Graham has not hesitated to call out Trump; another lagging candidate, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, has also criticized him. Many of the others have scolded him for one offensive comment or another—whether it’s the one about Mexicans, or the one about John McCain, or the one about Megyn Kelly. In general, however, the other candidates seem afraid of provoking Trump, whether because they don’t want to lose his supporters or because they fear the mogul’s talent for devastating insults. (Graham’s tangle with Trump led the famously luddite senator to replace his old flip phone with an iPhone, which he refers to as “the most positive thing to come out of this campaign so far.”)

Last week, Jeb Bush signaled a major shift in strategy when he went on the offensive against Trump, criticizing him as insufficiently conservative; Bush’s allied super PAC flew a plane over Trump’s Alabama rally on Friday trailing a banner reading “TRUMP 4 HIGHER TAXES, JEB 4 PREZ.” Some Bush allies cheered his courage in taking on Trump, while others worry Bush may damage or diminish himself in the process. Bush’s offensive represents the first sustained effort to run a conventional political campaign against Trump; the GOP establishment is watching closely to see if such tactics can succeed, or whether Trump will again prove immune to the normal rules of politics.

In the (possibly apocryphal) past, there would have been a smoke-filled room where the GOP grandees could meet and hatch a plan to excommunicate Trump. His success, and the inability to stop him, speaks to the weakness of the party establishment in the time of the Tea Party. These days, the counter-establishment devoted to attacking Republican incumbents often seems better organized than the establishment it harasses. (Early on, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tried calling Trump and asking him to back off; the tactic backfired.)

For Trump, the establishment’s indigestion is simply evidence he’s doing something right. Roger Stone, the ex-Trump strategist who remains devoted to the cause, said Americans are looking for a candidate who doesn’t kowtow to the conventional wisdom. “Voters don’t trust career politicians, Congress, the elite media—they think they’re all in bed with the political establishment, and in many cases they’re right,” Stone said.

The Beltway freakout that Trump has inspired proves his ability to shake up the system, Stone added. “I think what they’re really upset about is that if he got elected they’d be out of a job, since they’re in the lobbying revolving door,” said Stone, himself a former lobbyist. “They can’t buy him; they can’t influence him in the traditional Washington ways. He’ll be a truly independent president, and I don’t think that’s something the Republican establishment wants.”