Obviously there is a deep schism in the Republican Party. It has been developing for years, and could be seen to some extent in earlier presidential cycles, but was opened fully and dramatically by the improbable candidacy of Donald Trump. Only one outcome in November would forestall a complete, likely irreversible fracturing: the election of Hillary Clinton. Thus, many elite Republican operators—including lobbyists, elected officials, and pundits—are desperately hoping that Trump loses. Some are limited to expressing this desire privately, for fear of alienating the conservative voters on whom their continued electoral (or business) prospects depend.
Republicans who were especially devoted to Marco Rubio during the primary—whose interests align with the perpetuation of the party’s status quo—are perhaps the most strident in their wish for a Trump defeat. (Recall that the few areas where Rubio prevailed earlier this year included Washington, D.C., and its Northern Virginia suburbs—locations that have profited immensely from the post-9/11 military-industrial buildup.) Under a President Trump, such establishmentarian actors would lose power. Maybe they’d retain some measure of influence within the administration, as Trump exerted his deal-making prowess to bring them into the fold, but their interests would no longer be paramount. Other forces would have propelled Trump to victory, and he would likely prioritize them in governance.
After Trump’s election, many conservative organs and their congressional allies would position themselves as Trump’s enemies, coordinating with Democrats on key initiatives to block his agenda. At the same time, other conservative organs, in tandem with Trump-sympathetic factions of the Republican congressional caucus, would coalesce around the sitting president and support his agenda. Eventually, these factions’ coexistence within the same movement would prove untenable, practically and philosophically.
The result would be less overall leverage for traditional Republican institutions in Washington, the kind whose existence is premised on the maintenance of the decades-old “three-legged stool” formula—social conservatism, free markets, and hawkish foreign policy—for entrenching conservative political power. Trump would saw off one or two of the stool’s legs, and there would be no replacing them, at least not in the short term.
Though a Trump win would necessitate a realignment, it would not happen overnight. Think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation would not undergo a sudden ideological makeover; institutional inertia precludes such rapid transformation. Change would happen slowly, but surely. A president always influences the ideological composition of the body politic—within his own party and the opposition. For instance, Obama’s eight-year term has reshaped the Democratic Party coalition, and also engendered commensurate shifts within internal Republican dynamics.
Under a President Trump, the Republican congressional caucus and affiliated movement-conservative entities would be constantly wracked by internecine warfare of the type that was on vivid display during the GOP primaries. No doubt Ted Cruz would be at the forefront of whatever organized conservative opposition to Trump emerged as he positioned himself for a likely presidential primary challenge in 2020. Cruz would be well situated to pick up the mantle of “true conservatism”—however that ended up getting defined—and he would be able to (convincingly) blame establishment-GOP squishes for fostering the conditions that gave rise to Trump. “True conservatives” of the Cruz variety could feasibly come to include the free marketeers and conventional national-security hawks who cannot countenance Trump.
Conversely, under a President Hillary, movement conservatives could comfortably unify the party in opposition to their longstanding enemy, papering over the ideological divisions exposed by Trump. Such divisions would still exist, but dealing with them would be subordinated to the overriding task of undermining Hillary. Movement conservatives could easily discount Trump’s nomination and failed general-election run as an aberration, and revert more or less back to form. They’d probably proffer some superficial initiatives to address “Trumpism” at the urging of prominent columnists—the somber panel discussions would be manifold—but “Trumpism” as a political program is so ill-defined and malleable that, in practice, any remedial actions wouldn’t amount to much.
It should also be noted that while this schism is especially pronounced among elites—such as those with sinecures at prestigious think tanks, or lobbyists with powerful clients to please—the divisions are far less evident at the voter level. Support for Trump among Republicans is around 90 percent, according to recent polling. In addition to keeping the traditional movement-conservative coalition intact, a Trump loss would narrow the gap between ordinary Republican voters and conservative elites, who could unite in their disdain for Hillary. Thus, those whose livelihood depends on conservative-movement institutions have added incentive to root for a Trump loss.
In sum, Trump poses an existential threat to American movement conservatives. Hillary is their only hope.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.