How to Save the Republican Party

In Trump’s aftermath, his enemies on the right will have to take stock and propose a meaningful alternative vision for the GOP’s future.

Bryan Woolston / Reuters

Donald Trump’s big victories in the Mid-Atlantic primaries don’t represent quite the end of the ballgame—but they come damn close.

And now Donald Trump’s many and fierce opponents in the Republican Party and the conservative movement face the hour of decision. Trump looks ever more certain to be the party nominee. Yet not perhaps since George McGovern in 1972 has a presumptive nominee so signally failed to carry the most committed members of his party with him.

So what happens now to those who regard themselves as party thought-leaders? Do they submit? Or do they continue to resist?

Resistance now means something more—and more dangerous—than tapping out #NeverTrump on Twitter. It means working to defeat Trump even knowing that the almost certain beneficiary will be Hillary Clinton.

Oh, a certain kind of pundit may speculate that an Independent candidacy will electrify the country, winning enough of the vote to throw the election into the House of Representatives. There, the Republican majority could—in some apocalyptic remake of Bush v. Gore—defy the popular vote and bestow the presidency this time on the third-place finisher. But this is fantasy, not politics. Theodore Roosevelt was the most successful vote-getter between the Civil War and World War I. Even he could not cast the 1912 election into the House, and if he cannot, some retired Marine general non-uniformed Americans have never heard of will surely not be able to. And if, against all odds, the scenario did unfold, the so-called winner would have no legitimacy.

What can more credibly be imagined, however, is an Independent candidacy that peels away 7-8 percent of the vote from a Trump-led GOP ticket, as John Anderson peeled votes away from Jimmy Carter in 1980, aiding Ronald Reagan.

Independent candidacies like Anderson’s allow political partisans to accept an outcome they cannot endorse. It’s the same thought process President Lincoln described in a favorite joke. A temperance preacher doing his rounds of the hot and dusty roads of Illinois stopped at the house of a more broadminded friend. The preacher asked for a glass of lemonade. The friend offered to put a shot of something stronger into the drink. The preacher refused on principle, but added: “If you could manage to put a drop in unbeknownst to me, I guess it wouldn’t hurt too much.” Lincoln told that joke to Generals Grant and Sherman in March 1865. When they asked whether they should try to catch Jefferson Davis when he fled Richmond. Lincoln added: “I’m bound to oppose the escape of Jeff Davis, but if you could let him slip away unbeknownst to me, I guess it wouldn’t hurt too much.” Some anti-Trump conservatives will feel bound to oppose the election of Hillary Clinton—but they guess it wouldn’t hurt too much compared to the Trump alternative.

So: If an Independent candidacy, what kind?

To date, talk of third-party candidates has been the sport of TV green rooms and conferences in pleasant locations. The old-line parties are too extreme, the complaint goes, and what’s needed is an Independent candidate to bust the corrupt duopoly, disrupt outdated ideologies, and at last represent the great American center. The people who advance this notion imagine the great American as looking very much like themselves: socially liberal, at ease with globalization, committed to sensible moderate problem-solving ideas like reducing entitlements, liberalizing immigration, keeping guns out of the wrong hands, and campaign-finance reforms. These are the people who talk about a Michael Bloomberg candidacy, as before that they talked about a Colin Powell candidacy.

The trouble is: 2016 was the year that the great American center actually did rise up against the extremism of the corrupt two-party duopoly and actually did disrupt outdated ideologies. A secular businessman who backed both parties, who denounced big money in politics, who promised to do deals and bring back jobs—isn’t that what you had in mind? No? And if, like J. Alfred Prufrock, you murmur, “That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all” then it’s time to reckon with the fact that the great American center wasn’t what you imagined it was at all either.

The people who like Michael Bloomberg are the least underrepresented people in American life. They don’t always get their way—who does?—but it’s not for lack of candidates eager to take their money and voice their views. Hillary Clinton is almost as perfect a candidate as the Davos consensus could wish, and to the extent she deviates from that consensus—favoring somewhat higher taxes, expressing rather more skepticism about the benignity of large financial institutions—it can be pardoned as a necessary concession to political reality.

Donald Trump spoke to genuinely underrepresented people. Concerned that the GOP was captured by theocratic Southerners? Where Republicans are most secular and supposedly most moderate—the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic—Trump has done best. By all indications, he’ll do crushingly well in California, too. It’s where Republicans are least moderate that he was most resisted: Texas, Utah, and wherever party activists gather in caucuses and conventions. That’s where an Independent candidacy would be most effectively aimed.

To what end? Those conservatives who like Trump least presumably dislike Hillary Clinton most. Now that he’s the presumptive nominee, why won’t they line up behind him? The larger part of their most trusted sources of information, talk radio and Fox News, are already cheerleading for him. Those who still balk will likely follow eventually: After all, the real enemy is “the Left” ... and Hillary Clinton leads “the Left,” as everyone knows.

Yet here’s something that traditional ideological conservatives will want to consider: Trump rose by shoving them aside. Trump’s rise exposed the weakness of social conservatives in particular. For a third of a century, social conservatives imposed a pro-life litmus test on Republican nominees for both presidency and vice presidency. They pulled the party into confrontations over sexuality and religion that many Republican elected leaders would have preferred to avoid. And then, abruptly, poof: The social conservative veto has vanished. New York values have prevailed, with a mighty assist from Jerry Falwell Jr. and other evangelical leaders. It seems unlikely the religious right will return in anything like its awesome previous form. A visibly conscientious objector to the culture wars easily defeated candidates who elevated the defunding of Planned Parenthood to the top of their agenda. That lesson, once demonstrated, won’t soon be forgotten.

Trump’s almost certain failure in November will likewise drag after him other conservative causes, notably immigration restriction. Republican elites will be quick to blame a Trump loss on his immigration message. The way would then be cleared for a President Clinton and Speaker Ryan to do the immigration deal that congressional leaders wanted to do with President Obama in 2013. And if, by some freak chance, Donald Trump were to win the presidency, immigration restrictionists would discover—as so many have discovered before them—how little a Donald Trump commitment is worth.

The big internal conservative struggle of 2017 will be the fight to write the narrative of how Trump emerged and why he lost. Anti-Trump conservatives will want to say that Trump lost because he wasn’t a “true conservative.” But 2016 to date is proposing that “true conservatives” constitute only a pitiful minority of the Republican Party, never mind the country as a whole. Why should any practical politician care about them ever again? To regain respect after their humiliation by Trump and the pro-Trump talkers on radio and TV, those who regard themselves as “true conservatives” will have to mount a show of force. “Maybe we can’t win on our own … but you can’t win without us.”  And that means contributing—and being seen to contribute—to a Trump defeat.

Many of America’s leading conservative writers, thinkers, political thinkers feel alienated, confused, and betrayed by the rise of Donald Trump. They feel cast out of a familiar political home—rejected by longtime allies. Friendships that once seemed stronger than politics have frayed or broken. They eloquently speak and publish their dismay, anguish, and sense of loss. Here is Pete Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations, in the New York Times:

What makes this moment so unusual is that the ruptures are occurring among people who have for years been political allies, whose friendships were forged through common battles, often standing shoulder to shoulder.

I sympathize. I found myself in a similar place a half-dozen years ago. In my case, it was the Tea Party of 2009-2010 that I couldn’t accept. People I had known, trusted, and admired for years lurched toward a dangerous and self-defeating radicalism. When I could not follow the lurch, I would lose a job and friends and find myself consigned to a strange unmentionable unpersonhood by people with whom I’d worked for two decades. I know well the price of the policy I’m recommending. And I also know that—despite the American faith in happy endings—the rewards of politics don’t usually go to those who do the right thing. They’re more often scooped up by those who arrive on the scene just after the right thing is done. Throughout the 2015-2016 season, I’ve often had the déjà experience of being presented with ideas—and even phrases—that I published half a dozen years ago, as if they were brave and new. As Tom Wolfe wisely said, “It’s no good being even ten minutes ahead of the times.”

Donald Trump has done a lot to change the times. A shrewd friend, active in the Republican donor community, described Trump as the political equivalent of a chemical accelerant, hastening events that were likely to happen anyway. The plutocratic cast of Republican politics since 2009 was unsustainable in a country where the rewards of economic growth seem to bypass so many people. It was predictable, too, that the former ethnic majority would resist further demographic changes that reduced its political power and threatened to redistribute public resources to its detriment. If the former Republican leadership had been more responsive to the needs of its voters and less swayed by the demands of its donors, the party might have changed from within. Now it’s the target of a hostile takeover that will stamp the TRUMP brand as indelibly upon it as it was once stamped upon the cityscape of Atlantic City. That branding ended in ruin for Atlantic City, and the GOP is unlikely to fare better.

The job ahead, post-November, is to build a new kind of conservative politics—a politics with a broader social appeal than the entrepreneur worship of the past few years—that offers less toxic and futile answers than those heard from Donald Trump. Yuval Levin writes eloquently about what this new politics should look like in his important new book, The Fractured Republic.

Rather than decrying the collapse of moral order, we must draw people’s eyes and hearts to the alternative: to the vast and beautiful “yes” for the sake of which an occasional narrow and insistent “no” is required. We can do this with arguments up to a point, but ultimately the case for an alternative that might alleviate the loneliness and brokenness evident in our culture requires attractive examples of that alternative in practice …

The Trump campaign is a product of the moral collapse Levin discerns. It is built on some of the worst elements in American public life. It opens the door of American politics to the same kind of sinister influence from Vladimir Putin’s Russia that is being felt in France, Germany, Italy, and many smaller countries of the European Union. It preys upon the feelings of betrayal and loss—some justified, some not—so widespread in the poorer parts of white America. Trump has come so far because of the failings and self-seeking of Republican leaders, but he offers in their place only more glaring self-seeking and the certainty of even worse failures ahead.

Much of the old conservative message is out of date. Not all of it, but much. Yet the people who formed the conservative coalition remain. They’ve misplaced their faith and trust in Donald Trump. But then, it’s not as if their faith and trust were honored by the party’s plutocratic former leadership, either.

When it all ends as it surely must, the reaction will be intense and bitter. The only hope is to build one of those “attractive alternatives” that Levin prescribes, a new potential leadership structure that can truthfully promise post-Trump Republicans:

“I couldn’t follow him. But I was always with you.”