For movement conservatives, these are depressing days. The vehicle through which conservatism in the United States achieves political power appears set on self-immolation. In terms of elected officials, the Republican party is in a better political position than it has been for nearly a century, but the ugly presidential-primary process — regardless of how it is ultimately resolved — has jeopardized that position. Given this, conservative despondency would seem forgivable. Perhaps “end of an era” is, however, a deceptive way of viewing this clarifying period of internecine tumult. Maybe “present at the inception” would be more enlightening.
If Donald Trump continues to draw his modest plurality of the vote, the fight for the party’s presidential nod will continue into the summer and quite possibly all the way to Cleveland. Still, conservatives are justifiably nervous that they will ultimately lose that fight. Trump may still narrowly secure the delegates necessary to win the nomination outright. His explicit contention that any effort to thwart his aspirations at the convention will result in a fight in the most literal sense may cow the GOP’s capitulatory members into submission. In acknowledgment of the hazards ahead, conservatives are beginning to plan for the final backstop against a Trump takeover of the Republican party: a third-party challenge.
Politico gave the nation its first peek at the planning going on behind the scenes to field a conservative alternative to the center-left populist, Trump, and the center-left progressive, Clinton. Last week, a cabal of conservative power-brokers convened in Washington with one item on their agenda: Stop Trump. Their course will be fraught, and not merely because of the logistical hurdles they will confront. As the danger of a GOP schism looms, we may well see an unlikely alliance between Trump-supporting conservative disrupters and establishmentarian Beltway denizens. The Stop Trump forces are already being accused by their detractors of seeking to drive a stake through the heart of the Grand Old Party.
That is an overwrought contention, but there should be no illusions about either the scale of the undertaking or its true objective. The cabal’s labors will only begin with the arduous task of collecting the necessary signatures to secure ballot access for a third-party candidate in as many states as possible before filing deadlines, which are but weeks away. From there, the group will need to find donors willing to finance a bid for the presidency that has almost no hope of winning the White House or even of denying any other candidate the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to secure the presidency. And this is all to say nothing of the task of convincing a conservative candidate to mount a withering bid against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton only to lose. If all of these obstacles are overcome, the most likely outcome of the project will be to secure the presidency for Clinton, and to martyr forever the Trump campaign in the imaginations of its supporters as a victim of the rigid right-wing ideologues who undermined it.
Conservatives who would pursue such a course should be clear-eyed about both its risks and its goals. Theirs will be a thankless task, and its chances of success will be limited. Only if the objective is to prevent the Republican party from losing its identity forever as the only viable political party in America dedicated to limited government, personal responsibility, and free markets is this a worthy endeavor. If those are the agreed-upon stakes, then the choice for conservatives might not be a difficult one. To save the party, they’ll have to break it.
The most insurmountable impediment on the path of these conservative insurrectionists might not be any of the above hurdles but the elusive hope that Trump may still be stopped by one of the two remaining anti-Trump candidates in the race — Ted Cruz, in particular. That hope is not entirely unfounded — the prospect of a contested nominating convention is more realistic today than ever before in this election cycle. Nonetheless, if the hope that Cruz can somehow emerge the nominee after multiple ballots diminishes the urgency of this splinter group’s mission, then indulging such optimism would be a mistake.
There is no assurance that Trump will not become the nominee at the convention even if he fails to reach the necessary delegate threshold outright before he arrives in Cleveland. Moreover, even if Cruz were to emerge the consensus candidate on a second or third ballot, the GOP’s identity could be damaged beyond salvation should Trump’s supporters make good on their threats to “burn the place down.” The two-party dynamic is a remarkably resilient force in American politics, and the GOP has survived internecine breakups in the past. Still, the more the Republican party comes to be associated with Trumpism, the more the work of reclaiming the party seem like a wasted effort.
The paradox is that a conservative splinter movement is far more likely to keep the GOP together in the long run than would a tidy Trump nomination.
Conservatives with an attachment to principle over the prospect of “winning” for its own sake are inviting a delicious irony. If they succeed in fielding an alternative candidate in November, they will find themselves through the looking glass. Their movement’s most vociferous critics of lockstep party unity will demand tacit consent and silence from the Trump skeptics in their midst. Those who once alleged that principle should always trump clannish loyalties will suddenly discover the virtues of tribalism. Meanwhile, those conservative Republicans who criticized their tea-party brethren over the last eight years for their recklessness and imprudence will be transformed into evangelists for principle over party. The paradox, however, is that a conservative splinter movement is far more likely to keep the GOP together in the long run than would a tidy Trump nomination.
The country does not need two liberal parties, and the codification of Trumpism as the GOP’s guiding ethos would necessarily create the incentive to form a conservative alternative sooner rather than later. It might as well be now.