The GOP, as an entity, is totally fucked. And not just fucked in this election—they’re fucked in the long term.
Yes, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich all said at Thursday’s Republican debate that they would support Donald Trump if he were to win the party’s nomination. But given the vitriol of the attacks on Trump not only by Rubio and Cruz, but also by Mitt Romney, I can’t bring myself to believe those sentiments are genuine—and I doubt general election voters would believe it, either. For Rubio especially, it would take a miraculous feat of mental gymnastics to move from calling Trump a “con man” to claiming he’s fit to be the President of the United States. And you know all the candidates were paying attention to the backlash against Chris Christie’s endorsement of Trump, which resulted in six New Jersey newspapers calling on him to resign and Christie himself looking like he had gazed into Cthullu’s eyes and seen the coming apocalypse.
My best guess is that the GOP establishment isn’t ready or willing to annihilate the party just yet, because that’s what disavowing nominee Trump would be—there’s no turning back if they spurn the monster they’ve created and his army of unfailingly loyal fans. Either by staying home on Election Day or forming an emergency third party that splits the former GOP coalition, they’d be delivering the presidency to the Democratic nominee (most likely Hillary, as unhappy as that might make our Shane Ryan).
Now, the Republican establishment might try to turn to Romney’s suggested strategy of using delegate math to deny Trump a majority of delegates going into the party’s convention in Cleveland in July. This would involve an unprecedented amount of cooperation between rival candidates in an attempt to wrest all of the GOP’s winner-take-all primary states from Trump by banding together behind his closest competitor in each state. In Ohio, for example, native son John Kasich polls close to Trump; with a boost from Rubio, who has little chance to win the state, he could win all 66 Ohio delegates. And in return, Kasich could likely help push Rubio over the top in his home state of Florida. Such cooperation seems highly unlikely, not just due to the GOP establishment’s proven organizational ineptitude—Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich all still think they can win and wouldn’t want to accidentally abet a delegate majority (and therefore a loss) for one of their non-Trump opponents.
But even if, by divine intervention, the strategy succeeded in producing a Rubio delegate majority or a brokered convention that would almost certainly abide by the #NeverTrump strategy Romney trumpeted on Thursday, the party would still be doomed. That’s because Donald Trump would rightly claim that the GOP had failed to treat him fairly, and he would thus no longer be bound to the party. And despite his own previous confirmation that his September pledge of allegiance to the Republicans was made without exceptions, Trump has rendered the truth and his own past completely meaningless in a campaign that has thus far sustained zero damage despite its manifold inconsistencies. Ever a sucker for competition and winning, snubbed GOP nominee Trump would splinter off and run an independent campaign, because he’s got the popular support and the unmitigated ego to do it.
No matter what the outcome—a Trump nomination that results in torrid infighting and large numbers of voters and party elites staying home or (gasp) voting for Hillary, a Trump nomination that results in an actual split in the GOP, or a non-Trump nomination that spurs Trump to strike out on his own—we seem to stand a very solid chance of witnessing the first election featuring three viable candidates since 1992. We stand a damn near absolute chance of the GOP as we know it being destroyed, whatever happens.
In some views, the GOP has already been split irrevocably. An extensive study undertaken by a team of political scientists in partnership with Vox found that the most accurate predictive measure of whether a voter supports Trump is authoritarianism: that is, whether said voter prefers law and order and rigid hierarchies, fears outsiders and changes to the status quo, and demands the use of force and punitive measures to enact their system of thought. The study argued that the Republican Party made this bed in the 1960s, when it courted disaffected Southern Democrats and social conservatives frightened by the Civil Rights Movement and the sweeping cultural changes of the era. Not all of these people were authoritarians, but most authoritarians sorted themselves into the GOP over the past five decades, where they continue to oppose any threats to the old order—currently, in their minds, Mexican immigrants and Muslims. In practice, we call this manifestation of authoritarianism “bigotry.”
The piece goes on to say that the authoritarian constituency within the Republican Party is effectively an entirely separate entity:
...the rise of authoritarianism as a force within American politics means we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians. And although the latter two groups are presently forced into an awkward coalition, the GOP establishment has demonstrated a complete inability to regain control over the renegade authoritarians, and the authoritarians are actively opposed to the establishment’s centrist goals and uninterested in its economic platform.
The question isn’t whether these two bedfellows can remain together, but for how long. Those who believe the anti-bigotry stance taken by Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney’s scathing assault on Trump’s character are sincere, and that the establishment will commit organizational seppuku (either via a brokered convention that drives Trump to an independent run or by breaking off to form a new conservative party) before it supports the logical end of its half-century-long capitalization on bigotry, will say the end is nigh. Other pundits take a more cynical view and claim the establishment will fall in line with Trump, prioritizing the party’s continued existence and power structure over ideology.
No matter which of these things happens, though, the underlying split between the hardcore authoritarians and the GOP establishment isn’t going away. And things start to get really interesting when we examine the long-term ramifications.
First, I think the Democrats win this election easily. The only scenario in which that doesn’t happen is if the GOP somehow pulls off a Rubio or Kasich nomination without creating a Trump third party run. Rubio and Kasich, according to RealClearPolitics metadata, both poll significantly ahead of Hillary in a general election. (For what it’s worth, this same metadata shows Bernie Sanders faring better than Hillary against the same opponents.) Any official split of the Republican Party automatically dooms them, and even if the establishment swallows their words and backs Trump, it’ll be almost impossible to make the public forget the historically extreme rhetoric they’ve employed against him (the most recent non-general election example I can conjure is Alexander Hamilton’s ethering of Aaron Burr—in 1800). CNN’s political prediction market shows Trump, even with his seeming stranglehold on the nomination, as having less than a 30% chance of winning the presidency.
(Note: We’re aware that Ted Cruz has surged over the past few days. We largely omit him here because Ted Cruz is not an establishment Republican. He is a terrifying, psychotic zealot with an eminently punchable face, masquerading as a Republican.)
Second, I think this election triggers the next great American party realignment, and here, I turn to historical precedent for support. The Vox piece claims that Trump is just the first of many waves of authoritarian GOP candidates: “The authoritarians will still be there. They will still look for candidates who will give them the strong, punitive leadership they desire.
And that means Donald Drumpf could be just the first of many Drumpfs in American politics, with potentially profound implications for the country.” But while it also credits Trump’s style, it fails to mention Trump’s charisma and force of personality, which are unmatched by any politician in America (and perhaps by anyone, period). He’s essentially running on a cult of personality, independent of the traditional GOP structure and drawing broad-based support largely because of his brand. In this regard, the most apt comparisons to Trump’s run in 2016 are Andrew Jackson’s 1824 campaign and Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose jaunt in 1912.
General Jackson shared Trump’s affinity for the profane, and for the eschewing of traditional political mores; he was a xenophobe who did to the Native Americans precisely what Trump is threatening to do to undocumented immigrants and Muslims; he was also wildly popular among the common folk. The New York Times compared the two last month, but I want to take their comparison one step further. In 1824, Jackson ran for president, and he was opposed vociferously by the establishment of the time (the Democratic-Republican Party)—to the point that, despite winning pluralities of the popular and electoral votes, the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams president. Jackson and his supporters cried foul. Does this sound familiar?
Teddy Roosevelt left the presidency as an American hero in 1909 and, as if he needed to show off his badassery any more, went on a long safari to Africa with his family. When he came back, he found himself disgusted with the conservatism of his hand-picked Republican successor, William Taft. Declaring that Taft had abandoned the progressive principles Roosevelt had espoused—tighter regulations on businesses, favorability towards unions and ecological conservation, and popular election of judges among them—Roosevelt challenged the incumbent president at the Republican convention. State primary elections were not widespread at the time, so even though Roosevelt won the handful that were held in a landslide, Taft had accumulated more delegates overall. Claiming Taft had rigged the convention, Roosevelt stormed out and formed the new Progressive Party, colloquially named the Bull Moose Party, after Roosevelt himself. It was the most successful third party in any U.S. presidential election ever, garnering over 27% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes, but by splitting the GOP, Roosevelt handed Woodrow Wilson an easy victory. Again, does this sound familiar?
In both the above cases, the American party system fractured and reorganized itself for good. Jackson came back to trounce Adams in 1828, essentially founding a new party structure single-handedly: Jackson’s supporters became the Democrats, while his opponents became the Whigs. The Democrats dominated national politics until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Meanwhile, after Roosevelt’s Progressive bid was denied in 1912, Republicans who fell in line with his ideology slowly shifted over to the Democratic Party. When economic disaster struck in 1929, this trickle became a flood, and Teddy’s distant cousin FDR had a powerful coalition behind which he could enact the New Deal and usher in the era of the modern welfare state.
Looking at these two examples, do I think that a party realignment will happen immediately following this year’s presidential election? No; it’ll take a while for Trump’s army to organize itself without him at its head, and I don’t think the entire GOP establishment will jump ship if Trump is nominated (if any jump at all). But the writing’s on the wall for the current Republican party. The fiscal conservatives can’t long survive their linkage to authoritarian nativists who don’t give a shit about economic concerns, and the winner-take-all electoral system in America means they can’t form a third party with long-term viability. The most likely scenario I see is that they join Hillary and the establishment Democrats, leading to a more centrist party, a diminished GOP that consists entirely of Trump-types and social conservatives, and a pissed-off Progressive wing of the Democratic party that sees its influence decline for the sake of single-party dominance.
Until a Trump of the Left arises thirty years down the line, that is, and we do it all again.
Zach Blumenfeld is a Paste editorial intern, and this fucked-up election is making him remember why he abandoned his political science major at Vanderbilt in favor of philosophy. Follow him on Twitter.