The Final Stage of Republican Grief

With Donald Trump's hold on the nomination strengthening, some in the GOP establishment believe it’s time for acceptance.

Joe Skipper / Reuters

There are times when you can look at Donald Trump, presidential candidate, and almost see something normal. Or certain Republicans can, anyway. Newt Gingrich—the former speaker of the House, a man who has spent his life seeing things others could not—can.

“Here you have a guy who is talented enough to come from a standing start and dominate every poll, who has won state after state, who dominates the media, who has brought thousands of Democrats and independents into the party,” Gingrich told me, referring to primaries in which non-Republicans are allowed to vote. Under normal circumstances, he said, party leaders would be celebrating the arrival of such a figure.

But Trump is not a normal circumstance. Even as he barrels toward the nomination—winning at least three of the five big states voting on Tuesday, knocking Marco Rubio out of the race, and claiming a large lead with more than half the delegates awarded—his party remains mostly in shock at his rise. Over the past week, as he has refused to discourage the violence erupting at his events, many in his party say they are frightened by the specter of authoritarianism and the possibility of escalating conflict.

But in other precincts, it’s possible to detect a thaw. They couldn’t beat him. And now many Republicans say it may be time to join him, to make the best of the situation, to try to refine and civilize Trump, to nudge his candidacy toward normalcy.

“If I were a normal, old-time establishment Republican, I might have concerns,” Gingrich said, noting that Trump is “unstuffy,” heterodox on issues, and not wedded to the status quo. “But as a citizen, I think it’s very healthy to have this party get shaken up. On balance, you need somebody who is going to kick over the table—who has the energy, the drive, the nerve to insist we rethink everything from the ground up.” In his boldness and appeal to nontraditional constituencies, Trump, Gingrich said, “is a little bit like Jack Kemp, but so much bigger a figure.”

The last-ditch efforts to stop Trump poured millions of dollars into advertising the past couple of weeks—commercials that, Trump complained, aired during the golf tournament being broadcast from one of his courses. But the idea was dawning that it was too little, too late, and that it was time to face the new reality.

“There’s two ways to handle the Trump situation,” John Feehery, a D.C. lobbyist and former Republican congressional aide, told me. “You can contain the damage and try to unify. Or you can start a third party. I’m of the containment mindset.” As he spoke, a third-party effort was under way, with a group of conservatives planning a meeting in the next week to discuss the possibility. But that was not for Feehery, who preferred to look on the bright side.

“If it weren’t for all the idiotic and racist comments, he would be kind of a breath of fresh air,” Feehery said. “He’s someone who wants to get stuff done—a politician who’s not beholden to any kind of ideology, not beholden to special interests. I don’t think he is George Wallace in his heart of hearts. He’s not a strategic threat to the future of the republic. He’s just a buffoon and a political opportunist.”

Two of Trump’s former rivals, Chris Christie and Ben Carson, have gotten behind him, with Carson, in his endorsement last week, calling him “a very intelligent man who cares deeply about America.” He added, “There are two different Donald Trumps. There’s the one you see on the stage, and there’s the one who’s very cerebral, sits there and considers things very carefully…. That’s the Donald Trump that you’re going to see more and more of.”

That is the hope of some members of the much-derided Republican establishment, who say the time is drawing near for the party to unite around its standard-bearer.

“In the end, whoever the nominee is, the party will, to one degree or another, rally around him,” predicted Ron Kaufman, the longtime lobbyist and Republican National Committee stalwart. Kaufman supported Jeb Bush this year and was a close adviser to Mitt Romney, who has recently come out strongly against Trump and what he represents. But Kaufman saw no need for such hysterics. People walked out of the convention on Ford in ’76 and Reagan in ’80, he said, but they were the exceptions.

Kaufman waved off concerns that Trump’s rhetoric has reached a dangerous and unprecedented level. “Lots of folks say lots of things that probably they don’t mean,” he said. “I’m not in any way, shape or form defending things these candidates have said, including Donald Trump, but in the end, this is about governing.”

A vocal GOP faction—the “never Trump” bloc, which includes a sitting Republican senator, Ben Sasse of Nebraska—has sworn never to cast a ballot for Trump. His supporters, of course, are equally ardent, sticking by him through a constant drumbeat of outrageousness and controversy. But this third group, the resigned establishment, believes it is being practical.

“Is it fair to say there are huge divisions? Yes, and it’s unresolved whether or not we’ll be able to pull it together,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the organization that stages the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. (Trump canceled his planned appearance at the confab earlier this month to campaign in Kansas instead.) “But I know that for myself, and for many of the people I talk to traveling around the country, I’m going to support the nominee and I’m going to do it proudly.”

Like Carson, Schlapp was hoping to see some changes on Trump’s end. “I think the ball is in his court,” he said. “You have the Donald Trump of his victory celebrations, who has his beautiful family behind him, who’s magnanimous, who has a calmer tone. And then you have the Donald Trump of the rallies, who is harsh and a lot more rambunctious.” The second Trump obviously has much popular appeal, he said, but the first will need to start showing up more. “Eventually, the people want to see a president,” he said.

The hope on the part of the political class is that Donald Trump will begin to behave like a normal candidate: building a real campaign out of what has been an amateurish, wing-and-a-prayer operation; raising money from the very same rich stiffs whose influence he’s spent the last several months railing against. The donors, for their part, are also starting to come around. “If Trump is the nominee, I think there would be a sufficient appetite to end the last eight years of the leftward direction and overregulated economy that the majority of donors will support him,” the veteran fundraiser Fred Malek told the Washington Post. Stan Hubbard, a billionaire from Minnesota, concurred, telling Politico, “I would kind of hold my nose doing it, but I would have to do it.”

For Trump to become acceptable to the party regulars, he will have to show he can act the part. “He’s got to do a number of things,” said Scott Reed, the chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “He’s got to build a national campaign. He’s got to unite the party. He’s got to run a convention. He’s got to go up against the Clintons.” But the first three items on that list were things he could be taught or helped with, and on the final point, “we know he’s capable of pivoting on Hillary and filleting her.”

Trump, Reed believes, will grow into the role once the nomination is in his grasp. “It’s a big responsibility, and I think he will recognize that,” he said. “He’s going to recognize that being the nominee of the Republican Party is bigger than Donald Trump. I think he’s going to mature.” He added, “That’s not based on anything factual. I just think he’ll come to that conclusion.”

This was the view from the GOP’s Pollyanna caucus. Some of them thought Trump could win a general election, by mobilizing new constituencies; others thought that was doubtful, but he deserved the party’s support by winning the nomination fair and square.

But in other quarters of the Republican establishment, the acceptance of reality was dawning—but the mood was more like despair. “The reality is, we are here, and it’s bad news for everybody,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Mitch McConnell. “Are you going to see a bunch of people who disagree with Donald Trump on just about every issue suddenly falling in line and endorsing him? I don’t know,” he said mournfully. “It might be an area where you just never have a united Republican Party” through November. Holmes could never bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton, but he wasn’t yet ready to vote for Trump either. “It all feels like a horrible dream,” he said.

Henry Barbour, a Republican committeeman and consultant from Mississippi, also couldn’t say what he would do when November came. “I don’t think Trump is any sort of a leader for our party or our country,” he said. “I find him highly divisive, highly embarrassing, often wrong, and unrepentant.” Barbour considered himself a party stalwart and had previously said he’d support the GOP nominee, whoever that was. But now he said he could no longer make such a promise.

“He just seems to have this natural tendency to want to divide, to slap people down who disagree with him, and it makes me very nervous for him to be the commander in chief,” he said. “That’s a very serious thing, and I don’t know that he has the temperament for it.”

There was, Barbour allowed, a chance that Trump would change his tune, clean up his act, for the general election. “Maybe he could convince Republicans that so much of this has been an act. We could see another side of Donald Trump that could give us some hope,” he said. But he could not promise his support. “Right and wrong comes before party, and Donald Trump has been wrong on such fundamental issues, it’s very troubling to me,” he said. “He will have some convincing to do to get my vote.”