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The Looming Republican Meltdown

Donald Trump stands to do real damage to the GOP in the coming year, and the party has little power to prevent it.
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Donald Trump speaks to the crowd at a town hall meeting December 12, 2015, in Aiken, South Carolina. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Donald Trump speaks to the crowd at a town hall meeting December 12, 2015, in Aiken, South Carolina. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The Republican Party is facing a legitimate crisis. In a fairly short time, Donald Trump has transformed from an entertaining sideshow to a factional candidate to an existential threat to the party. This doesn't mean the party is doomed right now, but whether it gets through the next year intact is largely up to Trump, and that's not a good position for any organization to be in.

Loyal readers may note that I've changed my tune on this. Months ago, I had assumed that Trump, like so many other previous non-politician presidential candidates, would simply flame out or be destroyed. Without the support of party insiders, explains the influential book The Party Decides, one can't really mount a serious presidential candidacy. But as one of the book's authors, David Karol, recently noted, Trump is the rare sort of candidate who's an exception. He's been so famous and so rich for so long, he's largely impervious to party insiders' efforts to push him out of the race.

Note last week's flap about Trump's anti-Muslim immigrant proposal. That just had to be the final straw, right? It was so offensive, so extreme, it drew sharp rebukes from nearly every other Republican presidential candidate, Speaker Paul Ryan, the Republican Party chairs of New Hampshire and South Carolina, and Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney. The media widely condemned it, with Tom Brokaw issuing a special rebuke. And all this had the effect of ... what, exactly? It didn't seem to hurt Trump's poll standings; his supporters like that he's pushing these issues and serving as a thorn in the side for the party establishment. And it certainly didn't drive him out of the race.

Does Donald Trump feel any real loyalty to the Republican Party? Does he need anything from it?

For party leaders to actually drive an undesirable candidate from a race, a few things have to happen. First, they have to form a united front behind another candidate. At least so far, they've been either unable or unwilling to do so. They also need some leverage over the undesirable candidate. Howard Dean was a popular candidate in late 2003 but dropped out quickly after his weak finish in the 2004 Iowa caucuses. Hillary Clinton had as much of a legitimate gripe as anyone after her narrow nomination loss in 2008, but she conceded to Barack Obama before it became disastrous to the party. In general, these candidates want to be well thought of by the party so that they could be considered for the presidency or another office in the future, or simply because they don't want to destroy the party they've spent so much time in. Even Pat Buchanan, who took the 1996 New Hampshire Republican primary from insider favorite Bob Dole and had major problems with where his party was going, didn't want to burn the thing to the ground.

Does anyone think Trump is so motivated? Does he feel any real loyalty to the Republican Party? Does he need anything from it?

There's still time for this to change, but so long as Trump's supporters stay with him and the rest of the party fails to rally around an alternative, he's likely to stay in. And voting begins in seven weeks.

So here's how this might play out. One possibility is that Trump actually wins enough delegates through the primaries and caucuses to claim the nomination. (I still consider this highly unlikely, based on the assumption that his 30 percent support within the party is a pretty hard ceiling.) As the party has pretty well signaled, Trump is simply not acceptable as a nominee. Sure, some insiders will follow the voters' wishes and back him, but others will essentially bolt the party. They'll champion a more conventional candidate to run in a third party and try to convince voters that their candidate is the true Republican. There's precedent for this sort of thing, from the 1912 presidential election to the 2010 Colorado gubernatorial election. Both resulted in Republican losses, but the party survived to fight another day.

Another possibility: Trump runs strongly in the early primaries and caucuses but still loses the nomination race. This presents him with a choice: accept his losses and back the Republican nominee, or run as an independent candidate. (The latter is tricky—almost all states have sore-loser laws—but still possible.) There's little chance he'd win, but a very good chance he'd accrue enough votes to toss the election to the Democrats.

Either way, he costs Republicans an election that would otherwise be very competitive.

Neither of those situations are guaranteed. Party pressure is ramping up on Trump, and we may, in fact, see enough winnowing of candidates shortly before the Iowa caucuses that Trump no longer appears to be the front-runner. But a lot of what happens in the coming months depends on Trump's whims. He stands to do a lot of damage to the GOP regardless of his chosen path.

And Democrats shouldn't be particularly excited about this either. If Trump ends up being a major force in the general election, even if he comes in third, there will be considerable effort by the party system to address the wishes of his aggrieved supporters for future elections. And chances are, these efforts won't involve rebuking or ignoring those folks, who have the policy preferences of Bill the Butcher but fewer concerns over political correctness.


What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.