In 2008, Republicans suffered a landslide defeat after placing Sarah Palin on the ballot and setting her loose on the campaign trail, with the overwhelming approval of the conservative commentariat, to whip up an ugly right-wing populism. Upon losing, Republicans engaged in almost no reflection before launching a campaign of massive resistance to Barack Obama’s presidency.
In 2012, Republicans selected Mitt Romney, an anti-immigrant, centimillionaire businessman as their presidential nominee, and he in turn selected the most influential movement conservative in the country, Paul Ryan, to be his running mate. The two candidates effectively turned Ryan’s contentious policy agenda into a governing platform, and campaigned as tribunes against a culture that promoted “takers” (i.e. poor minorities) at the expense of “makers” (i.e. white businessmen). Despite losing that election too, the massive resistance campaign continued.
Amid and after both elections, liberals complained to and warned conservatives—as they have for decades—that Republican politicians were pandering to racists for votes. Conservatives, as is their custom, reacted poorly to this critique, dismissing it as race-card-playing cynicism designed to stifle substantive debate. To the extent that they internalized it at all, it was thanks to 2012 election data, which showed Republicans hemorrhaging support among Hispanic and other minority voters. The GOP responded to this data not by reinventing itself, but by trying to hustle an immigration reform bill through Congress before the very voters they’d been pandering to got a hold of the legislation and killed it. That effort also failed.
Conservatives remain loath to acknowledge the obvious, but the liberal critique of their politics is correct, and it took the Donald Trump juggernaut to wake them up to it. Indeed, the fact that liberals had a more accurate read on conservative politics than most professional conservatives seems to bother many conservatives more than the substance of the critique itself.
“It would be terrible to think that the left was right about the right all these years,” Bret Stephens wrote on Monday at the Wall Street Journal. “Nativist bigotries must not be allowed to become the animating spirit of the Republican Party. If Donald Trump becomes the candidate, he will not win the presidency, but he will help vindicate the left’s ugly indictment.”
Conventional political defeats are not enough to shake loose the conservative movement’s viselike grip on Republican politics. But a Trump nomination seems like it would do just that.
The downside risks of a Trump nomination are undeniable. But they are far smaller than the salubrious effect his primary victory would have on the country if it forced upon Republicans the kind of reckoning the 2008 and 2012 elections didn’t. If the politics of resentment were no longer readily available to them—lost to disgruntled Trump voters, or rendered toxic by the fact that they gave rise to Trump in the first place—Republicans might no longer interpret governing with Democrats as surrender.
It’s impossible to say what will become of the Republican Party if Trump rips it asunder. But Trump’s Super Tuesday romp suggests very strongly that’s where we’re headed. And yet because the thought of a Trump presidency is so alarming to both conservatives and liberals, we have also seen growing calls for liberals to intervene and help Republicans deny Trump the nomination.
“Whatever you think about Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, at least you basically know where they stand, but Trump’s opinions have been wildly inconsistent,” John Oliver inveighed this week in a twenty-plus minute anti-Trump cri du coeur.
The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart beseeched liberals in states with open primaries to vote for Marco Rubio. There is at least anecdotal evidence that this line of argument is persuading some liberals—those who fear Trump is more electable than other Republicans, or who worry about the harm another eight months of the Trump campaign might do to the country—to vote against him.
This is an error, and one liberals might easily live to regret. The #NeverTrump movement is unlikely to sweep in enough liberals to hand the Republican nomination to Rubio, who is trailing badly in the delegate count after a devastating Super Tuesday showing—but if it did, the risks to liberalism would be just as large as a Trump nomination, and much more likely to come to pass.
Democrats have no leverage in this primary. They likewise had no leverage in the Mississippi Senate GOP primary in 2014, when they denied the nomination to a Trump-esque candidate named Chris McDaniel, and helped re-elect incumbent Thad Cochran, who turned around and continued voting against the interests of his black constituents.
In the unlikely event that liberals were to hand the nomination to Rubio, they would extract no concessions. Republicans would pocket the victory, and do their best to sweep the mess of this primary under the carpet. Then if Rubio were to beat Hillary Clinton, Republicans would set about systematically dismantling the achievements of Obama’s presidency and rolling back the New Deal consensus in a way that would make Ronald Reagan look like Bill Clinton.
Nobody should be sanguine about Trump winning the nomination. If this election has proven anything, it’s that politics can be chaotic. But that does not obligate liberals to put their interests on the line when Republicans have made no adjustments and conceded nothing. Trump would probably be a prohibitive underdog in the general election, but in the event that he closed in on victory, the onus would properly fall on #NeverTrump conservatives to deny him the presidency and hand it to Hillary Clinton.
Only if Trump wins the nomination will the slow political bloodletting we’ve been experiencing since the summer do anything at all to improve the country’s long-term health. Republicans have about two weeks left to escape that fate.
For more on Donald Trump’s Super Tuesday successes, we suggest this episode of the Primary Concerns podcast, hosted by Brian Beutler: