I’m interested in where we are. I think we are seeing a great political party shatter before our eyes. I’m not sure I see a way around or through. I said so on TV the other night and got a lot of responses on social media. They said: Good. They said, “They are corrupt,” and “I am through.” Good riddance to bad rubbish. Next.
I am not experiencing it that way. For me the Republican Party was always the vehicle of a philosophy, conservative political thought—no more, no less. I have the past 10 years been its critic on wars and immigration, on the establishment’s self-seeking and failures of imagination. And yet at the prospect of the party’s shattering I feel somewhat shattered too. So many lives, so much effort went into its making. “I am more faithful than I intended to be.”
I knew Tuesday night I was witnessing something grave, something bigger than 1976, that traumatic year when a Republican insurgent almost toppled the incumbent Republican president. Bigger too than 1964, when Goldwater conservatism swept the primaries and convention and lost the country. What is happening now is bigger and less remediable in part because the battles in the past were over conservatism, an actual political philosophy.
And I find myself receiving with some anger, even though I understand, those—especially on the top of the party—who are so blithely declaring the end of things. Do they understand what they’re ending? Did they ever? It started in 1860. It’s first great figure was a man called Lincoln. We’ll start a new party and call it Fred, they tweet. We’ll be the party in exile. Implicitly: And I and my friends will run it. Like little boys knocking over building blocks. And they say Donald Trump is careless.
But we are witnessing history. Something important is ending. It is hard to believe what replaces it will be better.
No one knows where this goes. The top of the party and the bottom have split. They disagree on the essentials.
Donald Trump won big Tuesday night, carrying seven states. As others have noted, if it were someone else he’d be called unassailable, the victor—“time to get in line.”
If trends continue—and political trends tend to—Mr. Trump will win or come very close to winning by the convention in July. If party forces succeed in finagling him out of the nomination his supporters will bolt, which will break the party. And it’s hard to see what kind of special sauce, what enduring loyalty would make them come back in the future.
If, on the other hand, Mr. Trump is given the crown in Cleveland, party political figures, operatives, loyalists, journalists and intellectuals, not to mention sophisticated suburbanites and, God knows, donors will themselves bolt. That is a smaller but not insignificant group. And again it’s hard to imagine the special sauce—the shared interests, the basic worldview—that would allow them to reconcile with Trump supporters down the road.
It’s no longer clear what shared principles endure. Everything got stretched to the breaking point the past 15 years.
Party leaders and thinkers should take note: It’s easier for a base to hire or develop a flashy new establishment than it is for an establishment to find itself a new base.
Even if the party stays together with a Trump win, what will it be? It will have been reconstituted. Yes, it will be a formal and proactive foe of illegal immigration, and it will rethink its approach to entitlements, but it will also be other things. What?
We are in uncharted territory. But the point is fissures and tensions simmering and growing for 15 years burst through, erupted.
The establishment was slow to see what was happening, slow to see Mr. Trump coming, in full denial as he continued to win. Their denial is self-indicting. They couldn’t see his appeal because they had no idea how their own people were experiencing America. I have been thinking a lot about establishments and elites. A central purpose of both, a prime responsibility, is to understand those who are not establishment and elite and look out for them, take care of them. Not in a government-from-on-high way, not with an air of noblesse oblige, but in a way that is respectfully attentive to the facts of their lives. You have a responsibility when you lead not to offend needlessly, not to impose realities you yourself can buy your way out of. You don’t privately make fun of people as knuckle-draggers, victims of teachers-union educations, low-information voters.
We had a low-information elite.
This column has been pretty devoted the past nine months to everything that gave rise to this moment, to Mr. Trump. His supporters disrespect the system—fair enough, it’s earned disrespect. They see Washington dysfunction and want to break through it—fair enough. In a world of thugs, they say, he will be our thug. Politics is a freak show? He’s our freak. They know they’re lowering standards by giving the top political job in America to a man who never held office. But they feel Washington lowered all standards first. They hate political correctness—there is no one in the country the past quarter-century who has not been embarrassed or humiliated for using the wrong word or concept or having the wrong thought—and see his rudeness as proof he hates PC too.
“He can think outside the box.” Can he ever.
He is a one-man wrecking crew of all political comportment, and a carrier of that virus. Yet his appeal is not only his outrageousness.
He is a divider of the Republican Party and yet an enlarger of the tent. His candidacy is contributing to record turnouts in primary after primary, and surely bringing in Democrats and independents. But it should concern his supporters that his brain appears to be a grab bag of impulses, and although he has many views and opinions he doesn’t seem to know anything about public policy or the way the White House or the government actually works.
He is unpredictable, which his supporters see as an advantage. But in a harrowing, hair-trigger world it matters that the leaders of other nations be able to calculate with some reasonable certainty what another leader would do under a given set of circumstances.
“He goes with his gut.” Yes. But George W. Bush was a gut player too, and it wasn’t pretty when his gut began to fail.
The GOP elite is about to spend a lot of money and hire a lot of talent, quickly, to try to kill Trump off the next two weeks. There will be speeches, ads—an onslaught. It will no doubt do Mr. Trump some damage, but not much.
It will prove to Trump supporters that what they think is true—their guy is the only one who will stand up to the establishment, so naturally the establishment is trying to kill him. And Trump supporters don’t seem to have that many illusions about various aspects of his essential character. One of them told me he’s “a junkyard dog.”
They think his character is equal to the moment.