Politics & Policy

Trumpism Is an Existential Threat to the Republican Party

Trump supporters at a rally in Wichita, Ks., March 5, 2016. (J. Pat Carter/Getty)

As Donald Trump continues what seems like an unstoppable march to the GOP nomination, it behooves constitutional conservatives to consider how to proceed should he become the Republican party’s candidate for president.

Many brave and forward-thinking conservatives have begun rallying to the #NeverTrump flag. I count myself an ally of this group and will not vote for Trump even if he is the Republican nominee.

Some within the #NeverTrump crowd are wondering whether the Republican party is worth saving, and are preparing themselves to jump from a sinking GOP ship. I am incredibly sympathetic to such sentiments. It has been nauseating to watch quisling opportunists like Chris Christie, Paul LePage, and even Jeff Sessions endorse a vulgar charlatan like Trump. With some bright and brave exceptions — Senator Ben Sasse, Governor Charlie Baker — many weak-kneed elected officials continue to hem and haw about supporting the Republican nominee, whomever it is. Though we can’t yet predict what will happen, it seems more than likely that most Republican officeholders will support Trump should he get the party’s nod — and that is shameful.

RELATED: Conservative Purists Are Capitulating with Support of Trump

Should Trump capture both the nomination and the presidency, it could spell the end of the GOP as America’s conservative party. If Trump’s post-constitutional blend of illiberal authoritarianism and shallow populism leads the Republicans back to the White House, it is hard to imagine conservatives returning to the driver’s seat. A President Trump would have at least four years to remake the party of Lincoln and Reagan in his own image, and constitutional conservatives will likely have to find another political home.

All that said, it remains important for those of us in the #NeverTrump camp to remain within the party and work for its success down-ballot, even if we have to oppose the man at the top — at least for now. Any third party we create to fight this fall’s general election must declare itself a temporary, emergency response to particular circumstances, rather than seek to become a permanent feature of our political landscape.

#share#America’s political parties have proven surprisingly durable. After a half-century of churn in which parties rose and fell fairly quickly, America’s two great parties have rallied citizens to their banners for well over 150 years. Through watershed elections and massive political realignments, the Republicans and Democrats have both stood strong.

RELATED: Both Parties Are Coming Apart at the Seams

Acknowledging this reality has helped many fringe political movements move into the mainstream. Libertarianism fared far better when Ron Paul ran as a Republican than when he ran on the Libertarian ticket. Bernie Sanders has realized that socialism stands a better shot within the Democratic party than outside of it. And, of course, Donald Trump has achieved far greater success with his brand of populism in the GOP primaries than he ever could through an independent bid.

If conservatives are to have a voice in our politics, it is best that we remain within one of our two major parties.

If conservatives are to have a voice in our politics, it is best that we remain within one of our two major parties as long as possible, rather than striking out on our own. Even if Trump wins the Republican nomination for president, the GOP will remain, on balance, the more conservative of our two parties. So long as he is not given the chance to lead the party for four to eight years, we stand a chance of taking it back from Trumpism.

It is also important to stay in the Republican fold so that we can work on behalf of the party’s candidates for Congress, governorships, and the statehouses. Despite the chaos at the top, Republicans remain in control of the House, Senate, and a majority of state governments. Maintaining this control as a bulwark for limited government and conservative principles will be all the more important should we face the prospect of a Clinton or Trump administration.

RELATED: We Can’t Return to Limited Government by Electing a Strongman

Of course, if we succeed in denying Trump the presidency, even as we remain faithful Republicans, our work will be far from over. As David French has argued in these pages, Republican voters are sick of being told to choose “electable” candidates who always seem to lose, and many Trump supporters are turning to him because they believe he can finally score a victory. If Trumpism fails to deliver a win, conservatives will have another chance to make our case to the public and prove that we can win elections. Should we get that privilege, the stakes will be higher than ever.

#related#History is instructive in this regard: In 1896, William Jennings Bryan — the rising populist demagogue of his day — managed to wrest control of the Democratic party from its more conservative, Jeffersonian establishment. After he went on to lose two elections in a row — in 1896 and 1900 — the old Jeffersonian Democrats were able to recapture the party in 1904. They sidelined Bryan and nominated the conservative Alton B. Parker as their candidate for president. He lost in a landslide to Theodore Roosevelt. By 1908, Bryan had regained control of the party. And when the Democrats finally managed to capture the White House with progressive Woodrow Wilson, Bryan was made Secretary of State, and the Jeffersonian Democrats headed toward extinction.

If Trump loses, we will get another chance to make our case to the public. But it will likely be our last chance.

Donald Trump probably doesn’t pose a mortal threat to the Republic; we’ve suffered through an awful lot in our history as a nation. But he does present such a threat to the Republican party. It could be a long and grueling effort, but we can still save the party of Lincoln.

All is not lost . . .  at least not yet.

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