When Treason Becomes Patriotism

Will the men and women who sabotaged the Republican party also be the ones to save it?

Mike Segar / Reuters

The 2016 presidential campaign has been a trip through the looking glass, though perhaps no moment has been as surreal as the one on Wednesday night, when Ted Cruz, architect of the government shutdown, perpetual thorn in the side of Republican party, became—for a certain subset of conservatives—a sort of party patriot. For those who believed that denying Trump an endorsement was a principled stand, here was a Republican doing just that, and on the largest stage imaginable.

The snake-eating-its-head quality of this election season is difficult to capture: The treasonous has become the patriotic; the selfish, or at least deeply personal, is also the selfless.

For many in the #NeverTrump movement, Cruz’s sabotage was validation. The veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy, one of the de-facto heads of anti-Trump movement, was not unhappy with Cruz’s staunch opposition to Trump’s candidacy, though he said there were “lots of classier ways” to register that opposition, (not coming to the convention, for example, as the Bush family did). Murphy categorized Cruz’s particular strain of principled behavior at the RNC as both “showboat-y” and “Me, Me, Me,” something with which the conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker agreed.

“I think he’s a true narcissist,” said Parker, “and [that] was just another example of Ted being Ted.”

Should Trump lose in November, it’s unlikely that Cruz would rise to become a party savior, Parker argues. “People in Washington—in the House and Senate—dislike Ted Cruz for a reason. Everything he does is for Ted. He is like a running Ted Talk … about Ted.”

Murphy does not believe that Cruz will successfully shed the shroud of self-indulgence, nor rise to become a leader of the party in 2020. “Cruz’s sharp elbows and his self-focus gets in the way of his own principled positions,” Murphy said. “When Cruz makes a meal” out of his opposition to Trump, “it hurts him with the larger Republican family, which remembers moments like this.”

But will the larger Republican family punish everyone who has taken a stand against Trump, including moderate figures like Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has famously refused to attend the convention in his own state or endorse the titular head of his own party? In the near future, a designation of Republican patriot or turncoat will depend to a certain degree on whether Trump is victorious or not, but mostly upon the mood of the party in 2017.

Alex Conant, Marco Rubio’s former communications director, said that “If Trump loses, there will absolutely be a power vacuum in the party, and there will be a lot of competition to fill it. I believe that—after a lot of painful hand-wringing and finger-pointing—the next generation of conservatives will emerge as leaders of the party. And those are people who offer a new and modern agenda.”

This, of course, is the hope of 2016’s treasonous patriots: that the fractious conservative base will make peace, even if their man loses in November, and that they will not only embrace those who stood in Trump’s way, but concede that moderates should once again lead the party.

Parker concedes this thinking “is a gamble.” But she also said she would be surprised if the “people who came in as Trumpeteers don’t just disintegrate and disperse.”

Recent history would cast doubt on this hypothesis. I suggested to Conant that after Romney’s loss in 2012, the Republican base didn’t respond by embracing the moderate agenda set forth by the RNC in its 2013 autopsy, but instead seemed to have moved (violently) away from “big tent” politics and establishment figures alike. Conant did not seem particularly concerned. He explained that he believes Trump to be “absolutely an anomaly” in electoral politics, and not a shaping force. “He is primarily a force of personality—he doesn’t have an agenda. That’s powerful, but impossible to replicate.”

Then there is the scenario where Trump actually wins the White House. What becomes of these patriot-turncoats in that future is perhaps even more pitched. Will Trump and his party exile those who stood against him during the election? Conant thinks if “Trump is elected president of the United States, he’s gonna have a lot more challenges to worry about than what to do with” people who stood in his way in 2016.

That’s a decidedly bullish position, but in many ways, the medium-term implications of this confusing moment in Republican politics are unknowable. If there is one undeniable aftereffect of this phenomenon of savior/saboteurs, it is the new reality in which the concept of “party loyalty” is now fungible. Ted Cruz embodies this contradiction: Betrayal and loyalty are not on opposite sides of his coin, but on the same one. For the Republican party of tomorrow, it is a tricky course to navigate—one in which “principle” can be used equally to defend the party as it can be used to attack it.