The latest round of primaries is over, and Republican hand-wringing is in full swing. Should they bow to Donald Trump’s insurgency? Can Ted Cruz still beat him? (Do they even want Cruz to win?) Should they find a Republican to run an independent campaign against Trump if he’s the nominee? What’s their best chance of keeping control of the Senate?
To answer those questions, they must start from one crucial premise: The November election is already lost. Pretending otherwise will only lead to worse outcomes in the long run.
Trump has assured the split in the party will come, and that it will be deep. With every new low he hits, he pushes more traditionally Republican voters away.
But with every victory he notches, he also assures a larger segment of the electorate won’t stand for a different nominee. After Tuesday’s results, he warned/threatened “you’d have riots” if he were denied despite having a plurality of delegates. Never mind that the rules allow for just such a scenario: “I wouldn’t lead it,” he said Wednesday, “but I think bad things would happen.”
Feel free to picture him winking before that “but.”
So it’s very likely that Trump can’t count on a lot of traditionally Republican voters, and that a more traditional Republican nominee, including Cruz, can’t count on Trump’s backers. That is not a recipe for general-election success. It’s how Hillary Clinton wins a landslide.
But landslide or not, a Clinton victory in November looks more likely than ever. Indeed, imagining a scenario in which the Democrat doesn’t defeat this divided GOP is what’s becoming more and more difficult.
Trying to paper over the wide differences within the GOP that have been exposed during this primary season would, then, be futile. Freed from that impulse, however, what leaders the party has left might identify different priorities.
The GOP that is slouching toward Trump is not one that can win in future years, either. It’s not just that the “movement” Trump claims to lead has no unifying theme beyond his own proclaimed greatness at making deals and, well, being himself. (Here’s another actual thing Trump said in the afterglow of Tuesday, this one about whom he consults on foreign policy: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain, and I’ve said a lot of things.”)
It’s also because the “movement” Trump claims to lead is one that, by definition, cannot grow because it is predicated on pitting certain people against virtually everyone else. It is a self-limiting movement, the biggest limitation being the number of people who might want to join it.
The portion of the GOP stopping short of joining Trump, then, must ask themselves a question: Is their party really better off for the direction, and tone, and paucity of thought, and reliance on personality and ego he has given it? Or would it be better off without him and his thinking, such as it is?
That party might be able to fix the problems to which he has given a voice but little actual thought or hope of a solution. But it won’t come about as long as Republicans pretend they’re still fighting for November, and not everything that comes after.