As actual voting in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond approaches, a couple of things are becoming clear. First, against all early expectations, Donald Trump stands a solid chance of winning a plurality of votes in some number of states. And second, however large that plurality may grow, an array of conservatives and Republicans are not going to be converted to Trumpism.
What this means in the short term is unclear. What it means in the long term is even foggier. But it is becoming less likely that Trump’s ascendancy will dissipate without any fallout for the Republican Party — nor, probably, for the Democrats.
Today’s release of an anti-Trump issue of National Review, the publication with which William F. Buckley essentially launched the modern conservative movement, features a broad range of thinkers arguing against the embrace not only of Trump, but of what he stands for, which is anything but conservatism properly understood. The writers represent such varied publications and institutions as the Weekly Standard, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cato Institute. This is more than a single magazine editorializing against a candidate; it is a cross-section of the leadership of the center-right part of the political spectrum, standing athwart Trumpism, yelling “Stop!” And, of course, there are others at places like the Wall Street Journal editorial page (and, I would note, this blog) who are doing the same on their own platforms.
This not a new development. These same thought leaders have been doing this for months now. In fact, those who have taken greatest pains to portray Trump as a legitimate conservative figure have generally fallen into one of two groups: The ratings-driven, entertainment-posing-as-right-wing-thought industry, and liberals who are all-too delighted to pump up a candidate even worse than their deeply flawed favorite, Hillary Clinton.
Trump remains unlikely to win the GOP nomination outright. Voters surveyed in opinion polls have consistently opted for “the field” by a margin of at least 2-to-1. Trump is such a polarizing figure, it seems more likely that those who have any inclination to back him are already doing so, unless they are choosing not to voice their support for him in a kind of reverse Bradley effect. But it is becoming increasingly clear, as illustrated by the new edition of National Review, that even if Trump finds a way to win or emerges victorious from a contested convention, he would not simply be absorbed into the broader party and conservative movement. Instead, he would fracture them.
I can imagine a scenario in which those people now considered Republicans or Republican-leaners divide into two camps: Trump and Not Trump. In fact, I have been hearing from a number of influential, though not necessarily elected, Georgia Republicans who insist they would not remain in a party whose standard bearer was Donald Trump. This is, I think, the closest we have come to a viable three-party scenario since 1992, when Ross Perot delivered the presidency to another Clinton.
But unlike that time, I’m not sure it would be short-lived. We have now gone that much longer without a real political realignment. Like tectonic plates rubbing against one another, the tension between the same collection of factions still represented by either the Democratic or Republican parties cannot go on forever without rupturing. Trumpism may be the impetus for just such a division.
But I don’t think it would be a neat division contained wholly within the GOP, because the GOP isn’t the only party feeling the pressure of a shift. Bernie Sanders’ success among Democrats is showing a much larger fissure than most of them have realized, or been willing to admit. Note the way the Democratic establishment has been trying to patch things up — or maybe paper over the split — as Sanders’ popularity refuses to wane.
For that reason, I don’t think we’d be left with simply Democrats and the Trumpist and non-Trumpist rumps of a Republican Party. I can instead see a division that is more like this: progressivists, Trumpists and a third group whose views might be best described as classical liberalism. The two former groups are both motivated by a dissatisfaction with the status quo; they would just split from it in very different directions. The last group wouldn’t necessarily be content with the status quo, but they would depart from it in less radical ways.
Note that I didn’t call any of those groups “centrist,” or “liberal” or “conservative” in the way we normally understand those terms. What we call “liberalism” and “conservatism” today have morphed from what they used to mean, to accommodate the Sanders and Trump wings, respectively. The third group would absorb people from each side of our current left/right split who are simply more repulsed by the “other side” than by the people on their own side who make them uncomfortable.
The political tensions of the past decade or two will have to be resolved one way or another. The presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama illustrate why that’s true: Each man, due to his decisions and sometimes his personal shortcomings, lost the trust not only of the more ideological members of his own party, but of those in the other party who might have been willing to work with him. The result has been the gridlock of recent years, and a status quo that no one likes but which no one seems capable of changing.
Of course, the actual elections that begin next month in Iowa may play out in a way that puts off this resolution, or a different one. But the divisions apparent on each side of the aisle, and the unwillingness of some people on each side to go where others are trying to drag them, make me wonder just how much longer we can go on like this.