Portrait of a Party on the Verge of Coming Apart

With the Iowa caucuses just two weeks away, can Republicans reconcile themselves to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz? Or will the GOP break into pieces?

Jim Young / Reuters

CHARLESTON, South Carolina—For a certain type of Republican, the fantasy world where Donald Trump is not winning the GOP primary is a very nice place to live.

Beth Hansen, the campaign manager for John Kasich, is this type of Republican. Hansen is speaking to a crowd that’s gathered in a smokehouse bar in this city’s elegant, cobblestoned downtown, describing vividly a world where Kasich, the unvarnished, moderate governor of Ohio, is actually poised to win. This is not, to put it mildly, a world most political observers can currently envision.

“Our surge in New Hampshire is less than four weeks away!” Hansen says, to scattered applause from the group of several dozen clean-cut people in bow ties and long wool coats. “I feel really good about our ground game,” she adds. “We don’t rely on the public polls.”

According to those polls, Kasich isn’t much of a factor. One night hence, he will barely make it into the prime-time debate. Those polls—which may, in fact, be unreliable; nobody really knows—have been showing the same thing for months: Trump in the lead nationally, unwaveringly, toweringly, and by a double-digit margin. He’s even further ahead in New Hampshire, where Kasich is generally second or third, and he’s tied for first in Iowa. Overall, Trump’s nearest competition appears to be not a traditional pol like Kasich but rather Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the crusading, archconservative architect of the 2013 government shutdown.

Pragmatic and impeccably credentialed, Kasich sits on the opposite end of the GOP spectrum from Trump and Cruz. He is the ultimate avatar of the party’s governing class—and his utter failure to gain traction represents that faction’s rejection by the party base.

The people gathered to see Kasich want to believe what Hansen is saying, but some admit to being worried. “I’m here because it’s time for me to do something—I can’t just sit on the sidelines,” a wide-eyed 56-year-old woman in a yellow scarf tells me. “I’m a Republican, but I am definitely not a Trump or Cruz fan. That is not who the party is, in my judgment.” If one of them wins the nomination, she says, “I don’t know where I’ll go.” I ask her name, and she laughs: “It’s Beth Trump.” Seriously. No relation.

The day before Kasich’s appearance here, the president gave his last state of the union address, devoting the final section to decrying the “voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens”—the sort of dark demagoguery that is the basis of Trump’s flamboyant appeal. In the official Republican response, the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, gave a speech in which she, too, decried Trumpism: “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation.” Taken together, the two speeches amounted to a collective cri de coeur from the professional political class, under attack from a powerful and seemingly unstoppable insurgency.

Perhaps the GOP’s chaos is just normal pre-primary tension, when an active contest naturally creates an air of conflict, and candidates have an incentive to warn against their rivals in urgent terms. But for many Republicans—the ones not living in fantasyland—the current battle for the party, between the nihilistic forces of Trump and Cruz on the one hand and the uninspiring conventional politicians on the other, feels like something deeper. It feels like a duel from which only one participant will walk away. It feels like the party is on the brink of breaking apart.

With just two weeks until the Iowa caucuses, the prospect of Trump or Cruz as the Republican nominee is no longer distant enough to be ignored. “I’m surprised that it’s lasted this long,” says Cheryl Leonard, a 63-year-old elementary-school speech pathologist, here with her husband and a friend. “I thought that the showmanship would have died down and somebody real would come forward. But maybe that won’t happen.” She agrees with some of the things Trump says about immigration—we can’t let everybody in—but she’s horrified by his divisiveness. “It’s dangerous for the party, the way he’s alienating people,” she says.

Leonard’s husband, Gary, is leaning toward Kasich now that Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who might have rivaled Kasich as the most liberal candidate in the field, has dropped out. “But I think he’s probably too intelligent to win,” he says ruefully. “If we don’t change right now, there are going to be repercussions.”

On a wall under a high shelf holding shiny amber bottles of bourbon hangs an enormous sign reading “A Strong America Is a Safe America.” The newest Kasich slogan represents his only notable attempt to cater to his party’s fearful mood and lust for machismo. Kasich is introduced by the local state representative, Chip Limehouse, a big, beefy-faced man in a suit, who says: “He’s the adult in the room, and we need an adult running this country!” Among the candidates, only Kasich, Limehouse says, has what it takes to defeat Hillary Clinton in November. “If we nominate the loudest, most outrageous person in the room, we will lose. There’s no two ways about it,” he adds.

Kasich takes the microphone in a blue V-neck sweater and open-collared shirt and does his dorky-dad routine for a few minutes, invoking his mailman father, saying “You’re a doll” to a cherubic 11-year-old girl. He talks about the Ohio budget and bringing people together. “It’s not just about winning an election—it’s about being a uniter, being part of the healing process in our country,” he says. For this crowd, that’s red meat.

Afterwards, standing on the sidewalk outside the bar, I ask Kasich what he thought of Haley’s speech. Trump’s defenders on the far right decried it; which side is Kasich on? He says he didn’t see it—he was out fundraising in California. (Kasich, who has an iPad but not a smartphone and doesn’t use email, doesn’t seem to follow the headlines very closely: A couple of weeks ago, he told reporters he was unaware of the militia standoff in Oregon that was all over the news.) I try again: What does he think about the idea that we should resist the voices of anger? Kasich guffaws and says, sarcastically, “What, we ought to be angrier? Are you kidding me? I don’t think that’s going to fix the problems in our country.”

Kasich has something to add: You may not be able to tell, but he is having the time of his life. “Most people, they get kind of loose and have fun once they lose, and then everybody says, ‘Why didn’t they have fun before they lost?’” he says. “I’m having it right now.” At that, the governor of Ohio turns on his heel and heads for his waiting car.

John Kasich in Hooksett, New Hampshire on January 6, 2016. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

Trump and Cruz are the outsiders, it’s said, while the other candidates—the ones promoting some version of old-school governance—represent the party establishment. If you’re looking for the establishment, you might expect to find it  at the quarterly meeting of the Republican National Committee, which convened on Thursday in a swank downtown Charleston hotel.

“It’s like the NFL,” says Ron Kaufman, the thin-mustached, Boston-accented committeeman from Massachusetts, a longtime lobbyist and fixer who’s worked for Republicans from Reagan to Romney. (Partisans in each state elect a committeeman and committeewoman to serve on the RNC.) “There are two leagues: the centrist-conservative league, and the right-wing league. We’re in the semifinals to see who’s going to represent each league in the finals.”

Kaufman is for Jeb Bush, who he thinks has an “off chance” to surprise in New Hampshire. The centrist candidate, by his reckoning, has won every Republican primary since 1980; Reagan was only retroactively adopted by the conservative movement, which largely worked against him at the time, according to Kaufman. “I’ve been around since 1865,” he jokes, “so I’m kind of sanguine about the whole thing.” He doesn’t believe that perhaps this year the old rules won’t apply anymore.

If Trump or Cruz does win, he will have laid bare the vacuum where once sat the Republican establishment. Yes, there are the donors, people who give the party a lot of money and think this ought to get them something in return; Trump is running against them. (No less a GOP bigwig than Charles Koch recently lamented his lack of influence on the party.) There are the lobbyists and consultants, but Trump doesn’t listen to them either. There are the elected officials, but they are held hostage by their constituents. There is no smoke-filled room where the poo-bahs could go to work out a deal and end this. In an age of radical disintermediation, parties can’t tell the people what to do. (The Democrats, it should be noted, are struggling with their own version of this same problem.)

I expected to find the establishment’s angst on display at the RNC meeting. The committee, after all, has taken as its project the improvement of the GOP’s image: After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, it commissioned a diverse group of party elders to get to the bottom of its problems. The so-called Growth and Opportunity Project, nicknamed the “autopsy,” concluded that Republicans ought to get behind immigration reform and strike a more tolerant tone in order to attract youth and minority voters. These days, that idea seems a rather distant memory, and the report mostly resurfaces when Democrats and journalists rub it in the GOP’s face.

One of the authors of the report was Henry Barbour, a Mississippi political consultant, committeeman, and scion of a prominent Republican family. Barbour backed Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who has now quit the race. I come upon him, wearing a tweed jacket and slacks, outside the hotel ballroom.

As political consultants are wont to do, Barbour emphasizes the importance of winning. “We have got to nominate someone who can beat Hillary,” he tells me. “This country is ready for change. But Trump and Cruz would have a harder time winning than other candidates who could appeal to a broader coalition.” Nonetheless, if either one is nominated, Barbour isn’t going to defect: “I’m going to support our nominee,” he says.

Not all Republicans are willing to make that commitment. The former George W. Bush aide Peter Wehner, for example, has just published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Why I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump,” putting into writing the pervasive muttering of the Beltway GOP. The readers of the Times surely eat this up, but it’s not clear whom Wehner expects to persuade. John H. Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor and chief of staff to the first President Bush, warned on television this week that Trump would “ruin the Republican Party.” At a private breakfast at the RNC meeting, Holland Redfield, a delegate from the Virgin Islands, implored his colleagues, “There is a limit to loyalty.” (Redfield videotaped himself speaking and then leaked the video to Politico.)

But the official line here at the RNC is a message of unity above all. The party chairman, Reince Priebus, who has convened a couple of halfhearted efforts to derail Trump behind the scenes, is publicly all-in for Trump should he win the primary. Priebus gives a speech in which he points to the lively primary as proof of the GOP’s vitality: “We have a diverse field of well-qualified candidates competing with each other on the basis of ideas,” he says. Most of the delegates I speak to, even those who admit Trump isn’t their cup of tea, go out of their way to promise to support him if he’s the nominee. (I do not, however, meet any Trump backers.)

“I don’t agree with a lot of Trump’s positions, and being a Hispanic makes it tough for me to deal with the tone of his expressions,” says Jose Fuentes, a former attorney general of Puerto Rico. But, he adds, “If Trump winds up being the nominee, I’m going to help him. If that’s what the party decides, I will be there.” Trump, the candidate of tribal resentment, is ironically benefiting from the tribal loyalty of the very party he disdains.

Thursday’s luncheon is headlined by Nathan Deal, the governor of Georgia, a plodding man with deep-set eyes and a thatch of gray-white hair. He, too, makes a plea for unity. With so many candidates running, he says, “We have listened to people say, ‘Why do we have so many? It’s dividing the party. It’s tearing the party apart.’” But, he adds, “If we want to win … please rally around whoever happens to be our nominee. We cannot afford otherwise.”

Deal proceeds to devote the entirety of his 40-minute speech to telling a remarkable story: how he came to embrace criminal-justice reform and built a bipartisan movement around it in Georgia, eventually ushering a slate of cutting-edge policies through the statehouse on a unanimous vote. The reforms, he says, have helped give the downtrodden the tools to lift themselves out of government dependence, without sacrificing public safety.

He did it, he says, because “it was the right thing to do—but if you want to talk about politics, if Republicans want to reach out to the minority communities in our nation, this is an issue where they pay very, very close attention.” As Deal speaks, it occurs to me that the story he is telling—a pragmatic, constructive vision of using government prudently and frugally to empower people of all walks of life to self-sufficiency—is the most damning indictment of Trump’s bluster I’ve heard all day.

As much as the mainline GOP loathes Trump, it may detest Ted Cruz even more. Cruz led the pointless and counterproductive shutdown, hurting the bottom line of the party’s business wing, and then got the last laugh when Republicans, despite dire warnings to the contrary, still won the next election going away. He has called Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, a liar on the floor of the Senate. Big-business lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce find him “totally unacceptable,” and he wears their revulsion as a badge of honor—a credential that proves he may be in Washington, but he is not of it.

Some Republicans who have moved through the stages of grief from denial to bargaining, if not yet acceptance, have begun to suggest that Trump might be preferable to Cruz. Trump is, if you squint, a sort of moderate Republican; he’s a dealmaker; and surely he’s craven enough to reverse his most alienating positions and say what people want to hear if he gets to the general election. Cruz, on the other hand, is an ideologue. The scariest prospect of all is that he really means what he says, and might, if elected, take it upon himself to actually upend the establishment’s cherished status quo.

On Friday, after the debate, in which Trump and Cruz sparred over Cruz’s American citizenship and Trump’s “New York values,” Cruz has motored up the road (in his giant black bus emblazoned with the words “CRUZIN’ TO VICTORY!”) to Columbia, the state capital. He’s here for a forum with the attorney general, Alan Wilson, the son of the congressman who shouted “You lie!” at President Obama in 2009. Welcoming his fellow patriot to a small stage set with a black-clothed table, two tall chairs, and a little potted plant, Wilson notes the important priority they share: “On a day-to-day basis, I’m fighting the federal government,” he says gravely.

Cruz supporters applaud at USC on January 15, 2016. (Chris Keane / Reuters)

There are about 400 people here at the University of South Carolina Alumni Center, sitting straight up in tight rows of chairs, listening attentively as Cruz rails against the president’s “state of denial” and the Supreme Court’s “lawless,” “wrong,” and “radical” decisions. (Outside in the driving rain, volunteers for Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, are handing out fliers accusing Cruz of supporting “European style taxes.”) He champions the Second Amendment and religious liberty and vows to “build a wall” on the border. He says the Environmental Protection Agency is made up of evil-minded bureaucrats who hate jobs, and describes global warming as “a bogus theory that the science doesn’t back up.” He says Obama’s banking reforms were intended to put small banks out of business so big banks could thrive. He accuses the president of “siding with looters and rioters over law enforcement.” Asked what he would do about Obamacare, Cruz says, “Take it out in the back alley and put two bullets in the back of its head.”

Like Trump, Cruz goes on for a long time—he gets that serious people want more than 10 minutes of platitudes for the effort they made to show up. But where Trump’s speech is stand-up comedy, Cruz’s is a sermon, full of practiced flourishes and ending with a Bible verse and call to prayer. Cruz does not spare the GOP in his litany of condemnation, ridiculing elected Republicans who go along to get along and decrying the “bipartisan corruption of Washington.”

Though the conventional wisdom is that Cruz is going after the same pool of voters as Trump, I find no former Trump supporters among his ardent base of fans. Many object to what they see as Trump’s grandstanding and narcissism; Cruz strikes them as more authentic and modest, a notion that would surely make Mitch McConnell spit out his bourbon. Instead, I find a lot of very well-informed conservatives who know what they think and have little use for the Republican Party per se.

“Trump is saying things everyone wants to say, but they can’t, because they owe favors,” says A.J. Lott, a 34-year-old with blue eyes and a crimson-hued bob. “But his mouth is going to get him in trouble. Compare that to Cruz—Donald Trump doesn’t have the substance to handle Congress.”

Lott, who is impressed with Cruz but leaning toward voting for Rubio, doesn’t consider herself a loyal Republican. “Sticking to a party, you lose sight of ideals. That’s foolish,” she says. “I tend to have more conservative values, but I vote for candidates, not for a party.” Lott’s friend Brian Wideman, a truck driver visiting from Michigan, adds, “Ted Cruz taking on his own party shows a lot of character and strength. You need a president who has that.”

Trump was the only candidate to send a Christmas card to Carolyn Watkins, a 61-year-old dietitian and devoted Tea Party activist who decided to support Cruz after her preferred candidate, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, dropped out. (The card said “Merry Christmas—let’s make America great again,” she tells me.) Nonetheless, she considers Trump overly “abrasive.” Watkins has had it with Nikki Haley, who she believes has turned her back on the conservative movement with moves like her state-of-the-union response and a proposal to raise gas taxes.

If you are a candidate, Watkins is a good person to have on your side. She pours her whole soul into a campaign. “I have given up my time with my church and my family to canvass for him, and I don’t do that for just anybody,” she tells me, and as she says it her voice wavers and her eyes brim. “What I find when I canvass is that Trump is turning people off as he shows his true colors, and people are coming to Cruz,” she says.

Watkins has had enough of the official GOP. “Republicans told us, ‘Give us the House, we’ll repeal Obamacare and stop amnesty,’” she says. “Then they said, ‘Well, we need the Senate too.’ But they got the Senate and they still didn’t do any of it. Now they say, ‘Give us the presidency.’ But if we give the presidency to someone like Jeb Bush, an establishment Republican in bed with establishment Democrats, they’ll just keep scratching each other’s backs.”

On my way out of the building, I meet a 24-year-old financial analyst named Vladimir Plotkin, sitting on a bench with his grandparents, immigrants from Belarus. (In heavily accented English, his grandmother tells me, “He so smart, if born in America he can be president!”) Plotkin likes Rand Paul, but no longer thinks he can win; Cruz, like Paul, he notes approvingly, was once called a “wacko bird” by John McCain. “It’s good that they shake up the establishment. We need people who fight and stand up for principles,” Plotkin says. “Ted Cruz calls out Republicans as well as Democrats—that’s what we need.”

And so the Republican Party careens toward its potential Armageddon. Cruz is the natural product of a conservative movement that has long seen the Republican Party as an enemy to be conquered, and of a GOP establishment that has held onto power despite being resented by its most loyal voters. As Ted Cruz tells it, the Republican Party has done this to itself. It’s his job, and that of the grass roots, to destroy the party in order to save it.