Two weeks ago, I assumed that — as candidates such as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich floundered — the GOP establishment would migrate to Marco Rubio and then Ted Cruz before coalescing around Donald Trump if and only if he emerged as the inevitable nominee.
I may be wrong. Simply put, I keep underestimating establishment distaste for Cruz. In conversations with establishment figures I respect — people who love this country and have nothing substantial to lose from either a Trump or Cruz presidency — I’m detecting a preference for Trump.
I’m sure that some strategists see it that way, but others are far less optimistic about anyone else’s chances against Cruz or Trump, and are asking themselves which candidate would make a better nominee and, potentially, a better president.
Simply put, this latter group thinks Cruz is a phony. They echo David Brooks in the belief that he’s a “nakedly ambitious” and “selfish Machiavellian.” They roll their eyes at his anti-establishment assaults, detecting political opportunism where his supporters see principle. They’re convinced that general-election voters would agree, and that if he somehow won the presidency he’d happily discard his constitutional-conservative stances to keep it.
The establishment’s anti-Cruz faction sees the real-estate mogul as more capable of bringing disaffected Democrats to the GOP, and thus potentially more capable of defeating Hillary Clinton. They’ve developed a grudging respect for his success, and a hope for what it augurs, since one does not remain a going concern at such stratospheric levels without an ability to adapt and compromise. Though they still think he’d lose to Clinton, they’ve stopped waiting for his campaign to fall apart, and they’re noticing that he represents a classic constituency — Jacksonian America — that is in many ways perceived as less radical than Cruz’s grassroots army.
Trump’s recent public humiliation of Bill Clinton probably helped him more with establishment skeptics. The conventional wisdom was that the media would only amplify his vicious attacks against Republicans, and that personal attacks against the Clintons would backfire. Early in the race, many on the right even wondered aloud if Trump was a Clinton plant. But he’s dominating the media environment so thoroughly that liberal outlets such as the Washington Post and Vox had little choice but to publish pieces explaining the nature and extent of the rape and sexual-assault allegations against the former president. Could he actually take on Hillary on equal terms?To be clear, this growing preference for Trump is born of deep despair. The establishment doesn’t want the race to come down to Trump and Cruz. They still vehemently disagree with Trump’s immigration stances and think his proposed ban on all Muslims’ entering the country is madness. They still think he’s making the wrong kind of appeal to justifiably angry Americans, uninformed on key issues, and would govern to the left of many rival candidates. But when Trump says that Cruz “can’t get along with anybody in Washington” and that “everybody hates Ted,” he’s echoing the very establishment against which he’s campaigned so loudly. Influential voices such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin are recognizing as much, and telling Trump to, in Levin’s words, “cut the crap.”
We’re two weeks from the first votes, and — though hardly inevitable — a simultaneous, seismic defeat of both parties’ establishments seems more possible than ever. But defeat won’t force party insiders to walk away; it will only mean they have to pick new sides.
Trump has survived everything the establishment has thrown at him. Can he survive its support?
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.