Donald Trump’s chaotic campaign has left the Republican elite paralyzed, facing a series of terrible options and having no clue, it seems, what the lesser evil really is. Supporting Trump as the nominee risks tarnishing both the party’s reputation and the personal reputation of the people who sign on with Trump. But severing ties with Trump risks a serious fissure in the party that could handicap conservatives’ political prospects for years to come.
You can see the most dramatic manifestations of the strife Trump is causing in the agony of Republican intellectuals, as they publicly wrestle with their future in the party. Soft as a pincushion, Donald Trump is no athlete, rarely doing anything more strenuous than a leisurely game of golf. Still, he enjoys playing the familiar high-school role of the jock who bullies the nerds, especially in his battles with right-wing intellectuals. “Bill Kristol’s a loser,” Trump said of the Weekly Standard editor in May. “His magazine is failing. ... I don’t think it even survives.” In a rally in November, Trump said about George Will, the venerable conservative columnist famous for his ability to quote abstruse writers, “You know he looks smart because he wears those little glasses. If you take those glasses away from him, he’s a dummy.”
In return, conservative nerds have been incessantly plotting revenge against Trump. Kristol has followed an inside strategy of concocting Never Trump plots within the party, while Will has taken the opposite approach by publicly leaving the Republican Party in protest of Trump’s insufficient conservatism. Yet neither Kristol’s efforts from within, nor Will’s example of voluntary political exile, have slowed down Trump’s takeover of the GOP and his flagrant challenges to traditional conservative orthodoxy on issues like trade and foreign policy.
The core problem is that Trump’s conservative critics have yet to take a full measure of Trump’s popularity among Republicans and what it says about the party. This is even true of The Atlantic’s David Frum, usually the most clear-eyed conservative critic of right-wing folly. As an analyst, Frum has the advantage of being a semi-apostate. He was a right-wing apparatchik for most of his adult life, but started having doubts a decade ago about the party’s inability to provide solutions to the economic needs of the working and middle classes. As such, Frum was long alive to the fissures within the Republican Party that became so visible this year, which has made him a diagnostician of unusual acuteness.
Yet even Frum isn’t willing to think through what the Trumpization of the Republican Party means. In his latest article in The Atlantic, Frum argues that conservatives should, contra Will, stay within the Republican fold, although they should also be much more willing than Kristol to challenge GOP orthodoxy on economic matters.
There’s some plausibility in Frum’s “stay and fight” position: If you are right of center on many issues, as Frum is, you’d either have to remain a Republican or create a new party very similar to the existing GOP in its basic orientation, if more reformist on economic issues. Given the structures that support America’s two-party system, Frum is probably right to dismiss the third-party idea, since any movement away from the Republican Party would be a path to political isolation. (If not, ultimately, to joining the Democrats.)
But Frum’s vision of reforming the GOP post-November doesn’t squarely face the nature of the party he will continue to belong to. Tellingly, Frum just waves aside the continued existence of Donald Trump: “once safely excluded from the presidency, Donald Trump will no longer matter,” Frum says. “His voters, however, will.” That means, post-November, finding a way of appealing to Trump voters without the toxic elements of Trump’s message.
But will Trump really cease to matter in November? After all, no human being loves the spotlight more, and he’s chased after media attention since he was a young man. Being the nominee of a major party is a dream job for him, because it means people will hang on his every word. Even if he loses badly in November, Trump will likely cling to his status as the strangest “party elder” ever—and convert it into new, attention-grabbing and lucrative projects. He has indicated, for one thing, that he wants to monetize his ability to generate attention with his controversial views by creating Trump TV (whatever the election results). Don’t scoff: Sarah Palin was number two on a losing ticket in 2008 and embarrassed herself spectacularly in the process, but she still commanded millions of followers when the election was over—enough, in fact, that she became a precursor to Trump in her merger of politics and reality shows, as well as one of his key surrogates.
Donald Trump will not go gentle into that good night. Nor will he curse the dying of the light. Instead he’ll keep pursuing the klieg lights of the media circus, and through his televised antics continue to dominate the political conversation on the Republican side. He’ll be helped by his unusually loyal and rabid fan base. As Trump rightly said, even shooting someone in broad daylight on 5th Avenue wouldn’t warn them away. In order to maintain that fan base, Trump is, based on past precedent, likely to nurture a stabbed-in-the-back myth against the Republican and media “elites” if he loses.
So Frum’s plan to craft a Trumpian-lite ideology, one that addresses the legitimate grievances of Trump’s followers without the demagogic excesses, will run smack into the problem of Trump’s continued relevance. If conservative intellectuals like Frum really want to take back their party, they can’t simply expect to co-opt the Trumpkins after their champion loses in November; they will have to argue with them, forthrightly and bluntly explaining what is wrong with—and anything but conservative about—the Trump worldview. Such arguments will have to be honest, which means not making the specious case (of the sort popular on the right) that Trump is “really a liberal Democrat” because of his views on trade or social welfare programs.
More than anything, wrestling honestly with Trump and Republicanism means confronting and condemning bigotry. Purging the worst excesses of Trumpism will mean abandoning the habitual anti-anti-racism that conservatives have used as their default campaign mode since the 1960s. It will also mean accepting that anti-racism is still an imperative.
Such ideological warfare will do little good for the Republican Party in the short run, but it’s the only path to long-term recovery. Trump and his followers aren’t going to go away. Co-opting them will only lay the groundwork for the rise of the next Trump.