What Happens To The GOP If Trump Loses?
Karen Tumulty and Robert Costa at The Washington Post ponder what might happen to the Republican Party and what might be called “Trumpism” in the event that Trump loses:
Trump’s decision to put [Breitbart News CEO Steve] Bannon in charge of his campaign “tells me that there’s going to be a battle inside our party for a long time to come,” [former Minnesota Congressman Vin] Weber said. “We’re going to have some very tough fights in the Republican Party when this is over.”
The first, if Trump loses, will almost certainly be over who is to blame — whether it is the faction within the party that supported and enabled his nomination, or the “never Trump” contingent that refused to get behind him once he became the nominee.
The scale of a defeat would also be a factor. If Trump were to go down in a landslide, his brand of politics would be vulnerable to a repudiation.
“But if it’s a narrow loss, it will exacerbate the intraparty warfare,” said Dan Senor, a former Romney adviser and outspoken Trump critic.
Adding to the friction would be Trump’s declaration that the only way he can be defeated is if the system is rigged against him.
“He has already said that ‘the result of the election, if I lose, is illegitimate,’ and there will be tens of millions of Americans who buy into that premise,” said Steve Schmidt, former senior campaign strategist for 2008 GOP nominee John McCain.
With so many Trump supporters viewing the entire system as corrupt, “you could very well see a fractured Republican Party. You could see a third party, a self-funded challenger four years from now against a vulnerable Hillary Clinton,” Schmidt said.
“The Republican Party has had a long, good run, but there’s not a guarantee that it endures as an institution,” he added.
At a minimum, it appears that the internal battles between GOP traditionalists and insurgents over issues such as immigration and free trade will continue to rage.
The best example of what might happen to the GOP in the event of a Trump loss can, of course, be seen in the events after Barry Goldwater’s loss in 1964 . In that case, the conservative insurgents who took over the party at the Republican Convention in San Francisco and got Goldwater nominated found themselves quickly outnumbered by more establishment types in the party determined to take control of the party back from a movement that had sent the GOP to one of the worst losses in its history. By the time the race for the nomination in 1968 came around, the only credible candidate associated with Goldwater in the race was Ronald Reagan, and he was a candidate who had managed to survive because he wisely kept a foot in both the conservative and the establishment camps of the party, in no small part by surprising many national Republicans when he won the race for Governor in 1966 just two years after the Goldwater disaster. In the end, though, it was the solidly establishment Richard Nixon who won the nomination for President, and conservatives in the GOP wouldn’t find themselves anywhere near the centers of power in the GOP for another twelve years. From the perspective of more establishment conservatives such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, something like this would likely be the best possible outcome from 2016, a Trump loss so significant that it essentially renders Trumpism to a quiet corner of the party to be dealt with at some point in the future if they chose to say, or safely ignored if they chose to leave and form a third party. Indeed, a Republican Party without the Trump supporters would be well-positioned to shift position on a number of issues in order to adjust to the new demographic realities in the United States and the fact that simply appealing to white voters, and especially white male voters, is no longer the path to victory that it used to be.
It’s also possible that history isn’t going to repeat itself, that the Trump supporters aren’t going to let the chastening of a humiliating defeat keep them from pushing forward to gain more control in the party. One reason this is likely to take place lies in Trump’s rhetoric itself, which is to allege that the only way he could lose is if Democrats cheat and to claim that ‘the system’ is ‘rigged,’ something that seems to play right into the hands of the far-right wing of the party that has rallied around him. Rather than slinking into a corner, these people seem to me to be more likely to blame Trump’s loss on the establishment and traditional conservative Republicans who either refused to support Trump, and especially those who openly endorsed another candidate, whether it was Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, or independent conservative Evan McMullin. Additionally it’s possible that we’ll see one of the prospective candidates for the GOP nomination in 2020 position themselves to appeal to the Trump crowd in one way or another. In that case, it’s just as likely that we’ll see something resembling a civil war inside the GOP that lasts from some point after Election Day 2016 right up to the convention in the summer of 2020.
So, which of these two scenarios is most likely? My guess is that it’s going to resemble something closer to the second scenario than a repeat of what happened in the wake of the 1964 election. For one thing, the Trump forces arguably represent a larger, more vocal segment of today’s Republican Party than the Goldwater crowd represented fifty years ago. After all, Trump garnered some 13 million votes and won more than thirty states during the course of the GOP primaries. That represents a political force that seems unlikely to go away quietly. Granted, much will depend on whether or not someone rises up to become a leader of these people — it seems unlikely that Trump will stick around the GOP for very long if he loses, and especially not if he loses badly — and who that person or persons might be. After all, much of the success of this movement has come because of the outsized personality of Donald Trump there to drive the train. Without him, and without a leader, Trump’s supporters could themselves start to splinter and fight among themselves, which will just make the internal fighting in the GOP in the wake of the election worse. The problem for the Republican Party in that case is that the party could become so consumed by infighting that it won’t be prepared for electoral battles in 2018 and 2020 that will have a large impact on both the makeup of Congress and the makeup of the state legislatures that will be in charge of redistricting in the wake of the 2020 Census.
Whichever scenario plays itself out, though, a Trump loss is likely to lead to some perilous times for the Republican Party.