Can Trump Divide and Conquer the Republican Establishment?

After Chris Christie backed the entertainer on Friday, so did Paul LePage and Jeff Sessions—a diverse set of politicians. Meanwhile, the opposition remains split.

Andrew Harnik / AP

For months, Republicans hoped, prayed, and convinced themselves that this day would never come: the day they had to take an actual, honest-to-God stance on Donald Trump’s candidacy.

Now, with Trump looking more and more like the GOP nominee, high-profile Republicans are starting to take stands, and some of them have decided to swallow their pride and endorse Trump. The first, of course, was Chris Christie, whose backing of Trump reverberated widely on Friday. Friday afternoon, Maine Governor Paul LePage, a former Christie endorser, followed the New Jersey governor’s lead.

On Sunday, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions backed Trump, too, ahead of the Yellowhammer State’s Super Tuesday primary. A Sessions-Trump alliance makes sense in many ways. Sessions is one of the hardest line members of the Senate on immigration, which is Trump’s signature issue, and an endorsement had been the subject of speculation since top Sessions aide Stephen Miller joined the Trump campaign a month ago. It’s also a blow to Ted Cruz, who has allied himself with Sessions in the Senate—one of the few colleagues he has a decent relationship with.

On the other hand, conservative Twitter lit up over the weekend with the hashtag #NeverTrump, as rank-and-file righties, pundits, and others vowed not to support the entertainment mogul even if he wins the nomination. On Sunday, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a rising Republican star, enlisted in the Twitter movement, saying he’d back a third-party candidate over either Trump or Hillary Clinton if those are his options in a general election. Nor does he represent a small group. While these numbers are fluid and could change as the election nears, 35 percent of Republicans who don’t back Trump told CNN in a poll released Monday that they would definitely not support him as a general-election candidate. Another 13 said they probably wouldn’t.

The reason the Christie endorsement was viewed as so pivotal is not because Christie commands a huge bloc—he had to leave the presidential race because he was low on both money and voters—but because it creates a psychological shift, allowing “establishment” Republicans to back Trump.

The group endorsing Trump already doesn’t fit any easy profile. Although Christie toughened up some of his stands ahead of the election, he was perhaps the most moderate Republican in the race. Superficially, LePage and Christie share some similarities—northeasterners, quarantine aficionados, bullies—but LePage is more conservative, and won office in the 2010 Tea Party groundswell. Sessions is a Southerner, a fourth-term senator, and an (unsuccessful) Ronald Reagan appointee as a federal judge. That’s three Republicans of different generations—one from a blue state, one from a bluish-purple state (LePage has won two terms thanks to a three-partly split), and one from a very red state. If you’re trying to pigeonhole the establishment Republicans backing Trump, good luck. That suggests a steady and growing stream of Trump endorsements from this broadly defined “establishment,” especially if Trump does as well on Tuesday as is expected.

Like Marco Rubio’s recent turn to bashing Trump aggressively, there are some uncomfortable questions for the #NeverTrump gang. These aren’t Johnny-Come-Latelies—many of them have despised Trump all along—but Johnny-Speak-Up-Latelies. Is the charge too late to make any difference now? And if it’s not, why did they let things get so out of hand before they acted? Who knows what the long-term damage to the Republican Party will be, but even if it’s small, there’s no advantage to having a guy who won't disavow David Duke as the party’s most prominent politician.

It will be interesting to watch the fallout from Trump’s Duke comments. The whole sequence is bizarre. On Friday, during a press conference, he somewhat flippantly disavowed the support of the former KKK leader. On Sunday, he refused to do so. On Monday, he claimed, rather implausibly, that he didn’t understand the question because of earpiece malfunction. The fumble did at least earn Trump the condemnation of Joe Scarborough, who has been one of his best friends in the mainstream media. The whole incident is in keeping with Trump’s winking relationship with white supremacy and other fringe elements throughout the campaign. He has, for example, blithely retweeted white supremacist Twitter accounts. In disavowing Duke, then kinda, sorta embracing him, then once again disavowing him on Monday, Trump can send a winking signal to Duke and his followers: We can’t explicitly welcome you, but...

The reasons why the Republicans now coalescing around #NeverTrump didn’t want to act are clear enough. Many of them believed—along with vast swathes of liberal and moderate observers—that Trump couldn’t win and would burn himself out. Attacking him carried several risks: First, Trump might turn on them and attack them directly. Second, attacking Trump might be counterproductive, since his support is premised in part on his outsider status—and attacks might only reinforce his appeal. Third, and relatedly, it was clear that while Trump’s views were abhorrent to the Republican leaders themselves, there was a vast bloc of conservative voters who strongly agreed with Trump. Attacking him meant alienating his supporters, and would suggest that the GOP’s harsh rhetoric on issues like immigration might have been just that—rhetoric. As rational as each of these is on its own, however, the cost-benefit analysis didn’t account for what would happen if Trump actually triumphed.

Even now, there’s a split among the anti-Trump forces, echoing the split between Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich for the anti-Trump presidential slot. There are those like Sasse, who says he’ll vote for a third-party candidate, or Erick Erickson, who vows to sit out. Others, like Robert Kagan and Tom Nichols, both national-security conservatives, say they’ll affirmatively vote for Clinton over Trump if that’s the choice.

The first group is the one to watch. These leaders acknowledge that sitting out a Trump-Clinton race would mean handing the presidency to Clinton. But unlike Kagan and Nichols, they don’t see Clinton as acceptable on the key issues they care about. If Trump wins the nomination, how many of the #NeverTrump gang will be able to resist the temptation to back a Republican—even one they fear and despise as much as Trump—against Hillary Clinton? How many will look at the map, look at Antonin Scalia’s empty seat on the Supreme Court, swallow hard, and pull the level for the GOP nominee? It’s like Justin Bieber said: Never say never.