There’s increasingly little to say about the results of Republican primary elections. The depths of elite Republican denial, comprehensible three weeks ago, now seem limitless.
Indeed, Republican presidential politics in general has become defined by a kind of paradox. What we’re witnessing has no recent precedent, and yet the situation is unfolding in such a way as to make most descriptions of it repetitious.
When Donald Trump came in a slightly disappointing second place in the Iowa caucuses, behind a niche candidate like Ted Cruz, it made a certain amount of sense for Republican officials to rally behind Marco Rubio, a more balanced candidate, who managed to climb out of a thinning pack of also-rans into real contention.
A week later, after a humiliating debate performance, Rubio finished a despairing fifth in New Hampshire, an astronomical distance behind Trump, who routed the entire field. Undeterred, Republicans … rallied behind Rubio again. After weighing New Hampshire’s repercussions for several days, practically the entire party decided, as if controlled by an outside force, to act like the whole thing never happened.
This plan worked—sort of. Well enough to propel Rubio into a very distant second place in South Carolina. And not withstanding the emerging pattern of Trump dominance, Republicans once again rallied behind Rubio.
Assuming the trend continues after Trump’s overwhelming victory in Nevada’s Republican caucuses, it’s both redundant and stunning to note that what’s happening in American politics right now is completely novel: An unwelcome insurgent is commandeering one of the country’s two major political parties, and its leaders are simply pretending not to notice.
This is a uniquely forbidding turn of events for journalists, who must somehow bring life to a dark turn of history where the only people equipped to stand athwart it have instead stood aside yelling, “Nothing to see here!”
Trump has now won three consecutive nominating contests, after barely losing the first under uniquely challenging circumstances. He is poised to crush his competitors a week from now on Super Tuesday. And yet there appears to be no plan in place, and perhaps no feasible plan even in theory, to avert this catastrophe.
A small number of conservative opinion-makers have pleaded with the party to intervene, but their strategies are so hyper-rational as to cross the line into fantasy: Perhaps Rubio and Cruz—the latter of whom is a hated figure within the GOP—can forge a unity ticket of undisguised political nemeses, both of whom are committed to top billing.
Or perhaps Rubio can team up in similar fashion with John Kasich to enter contention in the Northeast and Midwest—a strategy that would only harden Cruz’s resolve, and exemplify the argument, propounded by Trump and Cruz, that the Republican Party is a cartel that advances the interests of its elites against the will of its supporters. Though their relationship is also strained, what would stop Trump and Cruz, in such a circumstance, from forging an unstoppable unity ticket of their own, with a more natural line of succession? And even if the strategy somehow worked, what would stop Trump from defining the conspiracy as a violation of the RNC chairman’s supposed pledge of fairness to him, and mounting an independent candidacy?
The truth is, nobody knows how Republicans can best confront the Trump phenomenon better than Republicans themselves, and they appear to have no clue. Tonight’s returns, more even than Saturday’s in South Carolina, are a “your move” moment for a GOP establishment that may have no good moves left.