“I’m hoping, frankly, that this is the year that the Republican Party implodes,” Peter Gemma, a member of the Constitution Party finance committee, said. “There’s just no going back from here. How different things shake out just depends on whether people try to revive the elephant [a symbol of the Republican Party] or look for something else.” Pausing, Gemma added: “And the elephant is dead; you can’t revive it.”
It’s not hard to see why Americans want something other than the status quo. A majority of them think the country is currently on the wrong track. Voters are also facing the prospect of incredibly unpopular politicians—Trump and Hillary Clinton—as likely general-election candidates. But while people across the political spectrum are dissatisfied, divisions within the Republican Party have been the starkest. With Trump looking like the new GOP standard-bearer, some Republicans have vowed to vote for Clinton instead, while others have dramatically set fire to their voter-ID cards.
Nicholas Sarwark, the chairman of the Libertarian Party, one of the most well-known U.S. third parties, is optimistic that the Republican Party will indeed self-destruct. He is quick to note that the Libertarian Party saw a surge in donations, membership applications, and inquiries in the aftermath of Cruz exiting the race and predicts that’s just the start of what’s to come. “I think more and more people will feel the need to leave the Republican Party because they have been cheated,” Sarwark said. When they do, he hopes they take refuge with the Libertarians. “We’re the only serious option for the Never Trump people,” he added.
But is the Republican Party actually crumbling? Political parties are powered by coalitions that alternately work together and compete for dominance, and no party is inherently stable. There can also be gradual shifts, however, that fundamentally reshape political parties and the coalitions that constitute them. Trump has certainly shaken up the GOP—whether the rift in the party is beyond repair remains to be seen.
There has been speculation, in the media and in conservative circles, that Trump might be a catalyst for a political realignment—one that demarcates a seismic change in the political landscape. Divisions within the Republican Party certainly appear to have grown deeper as a result of Trump’s ascendency and won’t easily be papered over. Republican elites can’t dismiss him, much as they might like to. It would be equally unlikely to think that Trump will ever be fully embraced by the spectrum of coalitions that comprise the GOP, especially given the resistance he has encountered so far.
The extent to which Trump’s candidacy has the potential to reshape the GOP may hinge on how much sway he and his acolytes ultimately win within the party. Trump could end up leading a new party coalition with lasting power and influence. Or the old guard might reassert control after the dust settles on his presidential run. “From here on out, the question becomes: How much are Trump’s supporters growing within the party and gaining adherence, and how much are Trump’s detractors losing support?” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America who has written on political realignment.