Can the Republican Party Survive Its Current Crisis?

This isn't going to end well.
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Donald Trump  makes an appearance prior to the start of play during the final round of  the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at Trump National  Doral Blue Monster Course  on March 6, 2016, in Doral, Florida.  (Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Donald Trump makes an appearance prior to the start of play during the final round of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral Blue Monster Course on March 6, 2016, in Doral, Florida. (Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

"The fall of a major party or a major shift of power within one of the great parties is likely to be followed by the gravest consequences. It is more than eighty years since a major American party was forced out of business and a new major party rose to take its place; that party crisis was followed by the Civil War."  —E.E. Schattschneider, Party Government, 1942

"Great empires rarely go quietly into extinction." —James Baker, 1992

Please circle March 3, 2016, on your calendars. That was the day that a major party's most recent presidential nominee went on television and called that party's current frontrunner a con man and urged the party to oppose him through all available legal means. This is not a typical occurrence. We are witnessing something extraordinary, and it's hard to imagine that we get to 2017 without some sort of dramatic change in the way our parties look and function. But what happens? What does the party system look like a year from now?

The path forward for the Republican Party looks to be a painful one. The odds are pretty good that Donald Trump will go to the Cleveland convention this summer either with enough delegates to be the nominee or with a plurality, but not a majority, of delegates, allowing for a contested convention. If the party's delegates manage to deprive the plurality delegate holder of the nomination, that will only further anger Trump's supporters toward the party "establishment," likely fueling a massive rift in the party.

What is the Trump movement without Trump? There's just not much there beyond a personality cult combined with white resentment.

Meanwhile, if he does get the nomination, that will also cause a rift between those Republicans who have stated they could never support Trump and those who will simply fall in line. The former group could end up backing an independent candidate, or they could simply refuse to vote. Either would likely result in Trump's loss in November, which his supporters would view as a betrayal by elites and which would again fuel a massive rift in the party.

Indeed, there are few paths remaining that don't lead to both a considerable drubbing in the November election and a substantial rift in the party between elites and many of its voters. Can the party survive this?

At Slate's Political Gabfest last week, John Dickerson drew a comparison between this year's Republican nomination contest and that of 1964. In that year, an insurgency within the party resulted in the nomination of staunchly conservative Senator Barry Goldwater, an event that many longstanding Republican leaders found shocking and terrifying. Moderate New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller gave a speech to the party's national convention in San Francisco that summer warning against the "extremists" in his party who "feed on fear, hate, and terror, [and have] no program for America and the Republican Party." He was booed throughout the speech by pro-Goldwater delegates, who went on to nominate the Arizonan for president.

An important difference between that year and this one, however, is that, despite Rockefeller's warning, the insurgent's supporters actually did have a program. Although the party lost resoundingly in the fall election, there was an agenda and an ideology remaining to build on, and the platform that Ronald Reagan won on in 1980—and that Republicans have largely stood for ever since—looks very similar to the one the party carved out in 1964.

Should Trump go down to defeat, either in the party nomination contests, the convention, or the general election, what remains of his insurgency? What is the Trump movement without Trump? There's just not much there beyond a personality cult combined with white resentment. It's certainly possible Trump's adherents could take over the party's leadership, but it's hard to see such a party being very competitive on a national scale.

Could the Republican Party simply die? This seems unlikely. But it could well be a very different Republican Party by the time this process is over. We may see the two parties re-align, as Lee Drutman suggests. Or we may see the GOP just shrink to a sectional party for a while.

I would certainly not advise Democrats to be complacent about this—strange things can happen in general elections, and, as the Schattschneider quote above reminds us, a party's internal crisis often bleeds over and affects the rest of the country. Also, my own forecasting skills have proven weak at best during this cycle. But I nonetheless feel comfortable in applying Clubber Lang's boxing forecast to the Republican Party this year. The party is due for no small amount of pain, and it's not obvious what emerges on the other side.

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