The party risks failing at a basic function.
Something of a debate has broken out among Nevertrump commentators over how big a loss to hope for in November. The Atlantic’s David Frum makes the case that a decisive defeat would be preferable to a catastrophic one—or, as he puts it, it would be good if Donald Trump were “to rise from Goldwater debacle to respectable Dukakis defeat”:
The difference between a Goldwater and Dukakis outcome is the difference between holding a Republican majority in at least one chamber of Congress and a down-ballot deluge that would open the way to a new bout of Democratic legislative activism.
One may question the premise: There have been Goldwater-order defeats without down-ballot routs (1972, 1984) and Dukakis-size ones with them (2008 and arguably 1980).
Still, Frum’s view here is wiser than that of the Nevertrumps who hope for total humiliation, such as George Will. In April Will wrote a column urging “conservatives” both to engineer a 50-state Democratic presidential landslide as “condign punishment” for Trump and “to save from the anti-Trump undertow as many senators, representatives, governors and state legislators as possible.” If conservatives had the power and the inclination to do both those things, Trump would not be the Republican nominee.
This column rejects the premise that Trump is certain to lose, although we’ll concede that on current evidence he is likelier than not to do so. But lately another question has been preoccupying us: If Trump does lose, can the Republican Party survive?
Will seemed to think so back in April, when he claimed that if Trump loses big, “Republicans working to purge him and his manner from public life will reap the considerable satisfaction of preserving the identity of their 162-year-old party.” Will himself publicly rejected that identity two months later, telling PJMedia he was no longer a Republican. But anyway our question isn’t about whether the Republican “identity” can survive; it’s whether the party can.
A basic function of a political party is to unify behind a nominee, and the GOP has conspicuously failed to do so this year. In the first debate, in August 2015, the most memorable moment not involving Rosie O’Donnell came when moderator Bret Baier called for a show of hands: “Is there anyone on stage . . . who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person? . . . Raise your hand now if you won’t make that pledge tonight” (emphasis ours).
Only one hand went up, and it wasn’t an overly large one. Its holder spoke at some length and had a testy exchange with Rand Paul, but Trump’s bottom line was this: “I will not make the pledge at this time.”
That was a problem for the GOP. Trump was widely expected to lose, but he had substantial support—he was the front-runner, after all—so an independent candidacy would pose a real threat of spoiling the election. Party leaders wanted a commitment from him, and by September they got one: Trump signed a pledge to support the eventual nominee. So did each of his rivals.
Fast-forward to late March. The field has dwindled from 17 candidates to 3, and CNN reports:
Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich all stepped back from their earlier pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee during Tuesday night’s CNN town hall.
“All of us shouldn’t even have answered that question,” Kasich said of the pledge party officials asked all the candidates to sign in September.
“No, I don’t anymore,” Trump said, when asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper if he continued “to pledge to support whoever the Republican nominee is?”
Trump said he has “been treated very unfairly” by the Republican National Committee and party establishment figures. The billionaire front-runner accused rival Cruz of “essentially saying the same thing” in response to a question about the pledge.
Earlier, Cruz had told Cooper when asked the same question: “I’m not in the habit of supporting someone who attacks my wife and my family . . . I think nominating Donald Trump would be an absolute trainwreck, I think it would hand the general election to Hillary Clinton.”
Cruz of course did not honor the pledge; he delivered a speech to the Republican National Convention that pointedly omitted an endorsement of the presidential nominee. Kasich refused to support Trump or even to attend the convention, despite its location in the state he governs. Jeb Bush did the same.
Most of the other erstwhile candidates have supported Trump, at least to the extent of a pro forma endorsement. But the nonsupport of three major candidates—along with some party elder statesmen, most notably Mitt Romney—is significant enough to characterize as a breakdown in party loyalty. The question is whether it will be a precedent-setting one.
The answer would almost certainly have been no if Trump had been the loser who refused to endorse the nominee—that is, if the party’s original fear had materialized. In that case, other Republicans could have said Trump was never a Republican to begin with, so his disloyalty doesn’t excuse other party members from their obligations.
But you can’t really say that about Bush, Cruz, Kasich and Romney. Suppose Cruz and Kasich are the top candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination, and it gets bitter. Can the loser be expected to endorse the winner, given that both refused to do so four years earlier? Or suppose some upstart firebrand finishes a close second to (let’s say) Kasich. If the firebrand thinks it suits his ambitions, what’s to stop him from withholding support from the nominee, just as Kasich did four years earlier?
When you raise the question of party loyalty, Nevertrumps typically have two responses. One is that Trump transgresses some sort of boundary that renders the ordinary concern of party loyalty moot. This argument is most frequently expressed as a reductio ad absurdum: If David Duke were the nominee, would Republicans be obliged to support him?
The answer is obviously “no.” When Duke ran for office as a Republican in 1989 and 1991 (though not as the Republican nominee, there being no such thing in Louisiana’s jungle-primary system), prominent Republicans including then-President Bush disavowed him.
But why is Duke unacceptable? Very simply because he is, or was, a neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klansman. Just about everyone can agree with a categorical rule that Nazis and Klansmen are unfit candidates for public office. (And if the Republican Party were actually to nominate David Duke for the presidency, disunity would be the least of the party’s problems.)
By what standard is Trump unfit? In answer to that question, every Trump opponent will give you his own list—this or that ideological heterodoxy is unacceptable; his rhetoric is vulgar, cruel or irresponsible; he has no governmental experience; his business practices are dubious; his temperament is foul; people with ugly or extreme views support him. We could go on.
It’s not that these are bad reasons. For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that they are all good reasons (and also for the sake of argument, let’s ignore the question of how Mrs. Clinton compares). But the question here is how to formulate a criterion that excuses prominent partisans from their usual duty of loyalty to the party.
In Duke’s case that’s easy. In Trump’s case it amounts to this: “Many people find him objectionable for various reasons.” Is there any politician about whom that cannot be said?
The other Nevertrump argument is that party loyalty is not all that important. That’s true in the sense that if you made a list of personal virtues, starting with godliness at No. 1 and cleanliness at No. 2, party loyalty would be well down on the list. For those who don’t belong to a party, it wouldn’t appear at all. Even ordinary voters who are affiliated with a party have no strong duty of loyalty. Nor for that matter do intellectuals and commentators—other than those, like Bill Kristol and Sean Hannity, who also play at being party activists.
But party loyalty is important to a party. Our point here is not that Republican leaders’ failure to endorse Trump is some kind of moral travesty, but that it poses a long-term peril to the GOP.
All this presupposes that Trump loses. What if he wins? In that case, we’d expect Republicans to rally behind him initially and to continue doing so if he is seen as a successful president. If he’s seen as a failure, though, the disunity would resurface. In that case, the 2020 primaries could get interesting, which is to say ugly.