The escalating series of outrageous comments by Donald Trump on the presidential campaign trail has reportedly created enormous headaches for the party’s leaders and backers. The most recent controversy—following public blowups over Trump’s comments denigrating Mexicans, women, Senator John McCain, a physically handicapped reporter, and other offenses too numerous to mention (or even remember)—is, of course, centered on Trump’s call to bar all Muslims from entering the United States.
Although Trump’s utterly irrational statements have drawn much attention and commentary, what I find most interesting about those public reactions is the insight that they provide into the quandary faced by other Republicans. For example, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has condemned Trump’s remarks as “unhinged,” but in response to questions about whether Bush would refuse to support Trump if Trump wins the Republican nomination, Bush has refused to say that he would walk away from his party’s nominee.
Does that say something bad about Bush? If Bush views Trump as utterly unqualified to be president, the thinking goes, should he not obviously be willing to say, “I will not support this maniac, no matter what”? Not necessarily. There are plenty of reasons that Bush would not walk away, now or in the future. More interestingly, it is important to understand the many reasons that even truly moderate Republicans (a category that certainly does not include Jeb Bush, or Senator Marco Rubio for that matter) might never abandon their party.
The Illusion of Moderation in the Current Republican Party
In a Verdict column two years ago, I noted that there are no longer any moderates in the Republican Party—or, at least, none with any influence. As I wrote back then, the party’s two major factions are, at least when measured by any political or historical standard that does not simply ignore the radical rightward movement of the Republicans since 1980—“extremists” and “ultra-extremists.” The former group includes people who are perfectly happy to go along with an economic program that worsens economic inequality, harms poor children, denies voting rights to minorities, obsessively denies reproductive rights to women, and so on. Most of their differences with the ultra-extremists (currently best personified by Senator Ted Cruz) have to do with tactics, with the ultra-extremists willing to shut down the government rather than compromise on anything.
Nonetheless, the political press often treats Bush and Rubio as the moderates of their party. Other than looking less unreasonable by comparison to the ultra-extremists, however, there is no sunlight between the views of Bush and Rubio and those of the other big names in their party, on nearly every issue. Rubio, for example, now opposes abortion even in cases of rape or when the health or life of the mother is at serious risk. Both Bush and Rubio toe the party line on taxes, spending, climate change, and nearly everything else.
More to the immediate point, the truly outrageous nature of Trump’s anti-Muslim comments is matched by Bush’s outrageous proposal to disallow all non-Christian refugees from entering the United States. Trump’s proposal covers more people, because it applies not just to refugee screening, but Bush’s proposal is more extreme because it excludes all religions except one.
In that regard, then, we are not talking about Bush or anyone else feeling pushed out of the Republican Party because they are not conservative enough. And Paul Krugman was surely right to say that the non-elected Republican moderates “will, of course, find reasons to support whatever climate-denier the G.O.P. nominates for president.” Therefore, if Bush were to become the nominee, we could surely expect the dumbing down of the concept of moderation to continue.
As important as that phenomenon might be, however, my concern here is with a different issue. Even though we know that some moderate Republicans have not abandoned the party yet, even in the face of the party’s takeover by extremists and ultra-extremists, the question is whether those moderates—or even some of the extreme conservatives who are not crazy like Trump or Cruz—would really walk away if things were to become significantly worse. If Trump were the nominee, could we expect to see mass defections from the Republican Party?
The Odd Strategizing Behind Threats to Walk Away
As repugnant as I find Trump’s views, I am not at all surprised by Bush’s demurral about what he would do in the event that his party ultimately goes further down the road of bigotry and insanity. I say this, moreover, not as a statement about Bush (whose views, as I explained above, are hardly much better than Trump’s on most issues), but rather simply as a matter of understanding what a politician must say at various stages of a political campaign.
Imagine, for example, that Jeb Bush really has thought about the possibility of a Trump nomination, and that Bush knows without question that he could never support Trump for president. Even so, now is not the time to say so. As pathetic as Bush’s campaign has been to date, he still has connections, name recognition, and lots of money. Implausible though it may seem today, Bush could yet win the Republican nomination.
Bush could only win, however, if he is viewed as a good Republican. To say at this stage that he would not support his party’s nominee, therefore, would be political suicide. Policy views aside, therefore, I completely understand (and even excuse) Bush’s cagey answers to questions about supporting Trump in some hypothetical future.
The better question, however, is what a Republican would risk if he were actually to abandon Trump during the general election campaign. That is, if Trump-as-nominee were no longer a hypothetical issue, what would happen to a Republican who really did walk away from the party?
It is not, of course, unheard of for party insiders occasionally to break ranks. Nominally Democratic former Senator Joe Lieberman campaigned enthusiastically for his Republican friend John McCain in 2008. Various prominent Republicans supported (or at least hinted that they supported) Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, while other Republicans at least said positive things about Barack Obama in 2008. Some degree of apostasy is ever-present in U.S. politics.
Yet for people who actually expect to run for office (or for reelection), walking away carries serious risks. Although their opponents will surely welcome their conversion in 2016, there is no good reason to think that the former Republicans could plan to become successful Democratic politicians in the future. Partly, this is simply a matter of long-held personal animosities that arise between partisans. Intraparty rivalries are fierce and sometimes ugly, but a Republican who is considering going to the other side must somehow be able to see his long-term enemies as somehow not evil incarnate, and those enemies must be able to do the same.
For that reason, the most that one can reasonably expect from Republican officeholders during a Trump for President general election campaign is that they would be less than enthusiastic. Although people occasionally switch parties—former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector becoming a Democrat late in his career, for example—the overwhelming reality is that politicians have too much riding on their partisanship to expect them to defect.
Last month, I wrote a Verdict column in which I recalled the strange history of the 1980 U.S. presidential election. At the time, the Republican establishment was absolutely panicked by the thought that Ronald Reagan might win the nomination. They were sure that Reagan’s well-known extremism, along with his penchant for gaffes and his willingness to make completely uninformed statements, would doom the party’s chances to defeat a relatively weak incumbent president.
Even so, and even though the people pushing Reagan were outsiders who had offended the party’s insiders for years, there was no mass exodus from the Republican Party. Too many people had too much to lose. They might privately have thought that Reagan was a buffoon, but they could not afford to say so publicly.
This logic applies to committed partisans who are non-candidates almost as much as it does to candidates. People who wish to have influence in a new administration, either by being appointed to Executive Branch offices or simply by being invited to participate in important policy discussions, have every reason either to kiss up to a Reagan in 1980 or a Trump in 2016 or at least to hope for the best and wait for the next election.
The Stickiness of Party Affiliation
What about people who have no personal stake in the outcome of an election? We can surely expect (and hope) that many Republican voters would choose not to vote for Trump, if he were the nominee, but would they walk away entirely? That is, would there be a full-on exodus from the Republican Party by people who concluded that any party that could nominate a man who proudly espouses fascistic views is a party that is beyond repair?
The answer might depend on how badly Trump loses, and how much damage he inflicts on the rest of the party. For example, many analysts predict that a Trump nomination would surely result in the Democrats retaking the majority in the U.S. Senate. Although gerrymandering makes a takeover of the House a longer shot, even that is imaginable if Trump is nominated.
Even then, however, a mass defection is not guaranteed. After all, in the aftermath of President Obama’s reelection in 2012 (and Democratic gains in both houses of Congress), the Republicans’ leaders engaged in an “autopsy” that called on the party to become less extreme (or at least to try to hide its extremism). The ultra-extremists in the party had insisted that the supposedly-not-conservative-enough Mitt Romney add a true believer as his running mate in 2012, and Paul Ryan’s extreme views were a drag on the ticket.
Yet in the years since then, the leadership has watched as the party has become even more extreme, to the point where even true conservatives like Bush and Rubio are viewed as squishy. (And Ryan is now the Speaker of the House.) Has this led non-extreme Republicans to give up on their party? There is no evidence suggesting that they have.
To put it differently, if there are people today with moderate views who still identify with the Republican Party despite everything that they have seen, it is difficult to see how they are going to be driven away in any permanent sense by Donald Trump or anyone else. Because of habit, long-nurtured enmity toward the other party, or some other reason, the people whom some pundits think are ripe to be picked up by the Democrats return again and again to a party that left them behind long ago. Perhaps Trump truly does represent some sort of breaking point. Personally, I hope so. The evidence to date, however, suggests that the people who are still Republicans are not going anywhere, no matter how extreme things in their party become.