Trump and the Republican Stages of Grief

Trump and the Republican Stages of Grief

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross helped to redefine society’s understanding of an important human experience: grief.

Kübler-Ross proposed that grief was a process with five distinct stages. As her later work with David Kessler would make clear, these stages “are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.” The framework was meant to help people work through their loss, recognizing certain common characteristics of grief while acknowledging that the experience is “as individual as our lives.”

Those five stages are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Kübler-Ross acquired her insights while dealing with death and dying. In the decades since, we have come to recognize grief in other areas of loss, including debilitating injury, divorce and loss of employment. It turns out that grief is both ubiquitous and universal; it’s everywhere in human society, and all of us, if we live long enough, will experience it.

I think it is what many in the Republican Party have been experiencing this primary season.

What is often the first phase of grief, Denial, was evident for months after Donald Trump began to gain traction in the polls. Most party leaders were dismissive of his candidacy, which they saw as a momentary blip on a crowded radar screen. Pundits, too, thought that what some voters valued as a refreshingly blunt way of speaking was a double-edged sword that would start to cut away his support as effectively as it had garnered it.

Stunningly, as Donald Trump slashed away at one group after another, his poll numbers continued to rise. And that long-anticipated collapse?

It never happened.

Then came Anger.

When leaders and supporters of the Grand Old Party no longer could sustain denial, political guns began to sound. Candidates and SuperPACs turned on Donald Trump aggressively in debates and in ads. The barrage was so heavy that, in the March 3 debate, moderator Bret Baier felt it appropriate to ask all of the other candidates if they would support the eventual nominee “even if that nominee is Donald J. Trump.”   The question implied what was increasingly evident: Republican leaders were incensed at the thought that Donald Trump could “steal” their brand.

While the three other candidates swallowed their pride (and perhaps their bile) and dutifully declared fealty to Donald Trump if he became the nominee, their performance simply wasn’t credible. As Governor John Kasich would acknowledge in retracting his pledge later that same month, “Probably shouldn’t have even answered that question.”

But for all the pointed attacks and #NeverTrump hype, “never” is looking more and more like a very short time indeed.

Even before the Indiana primary, some Republican leaders began to Bargain. The Trump campaign offered some encouragement for this, saying early in April that a change in style and substance was coming. Perhaps to encourage such behavior, some GOP leaders offered words of praise, as though some Republican love might seduce the frontrunner into a more promising (from the party’s perspective) style of self-presentation. Most ironic of these offerings was Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s endorsement of Senator Ted Cruz, which included enough praise of The Donald to allow Trump to suggest that Governor Pence actually liked him better.

But bargaining implies that both parties have something the other wants that can only be secured by negotiating. That seems less and less to be the case. Donald Trump is likely to be able to take the party’s nomination by force of delegates, without any help from party leaders.

If one is a Republican, and not a Trump Republican, the string of Trump victories can only be described as depressing. Depression, of course, is the fourth stage of grieving, that enervating, debilitating sense that nothing one can do will change the facts of the loss one is experiencing.

And a loss . . . potentially a very serious loss . . . is the diagnosis offered by most professionals. While it may not be a terminal illness for the Grand Old Party, it seems likely to be a profoundly debilitating one.


As the chance that anyone other than Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee becomes vanishingly small, some Republicans are working their way to the fifth stage of grief: Acceptance.

Acceptance, according to Kübler-Ross, is not happiness. It is not believing that the loss one has experienced is necessarily “for the best.” It is not “getting over it.”

It’s just coming to terms with reality.

That’s tough for many a Republican right now.

I understand your pain.