In the afterglow (or aftermath) of the Indiana Primary, we are witnessing a kind of sorting out and soul-searching that is rarely covered in such depth by the media.
The searching has to do with a single question for “establishment” Republicans: whether or not to rally around the likely nominee.
Such soul-searching is much more normal in partisan circles once the nominee is selected than the press coverage this season might suggest. Staunch supporters of defeated primary contenders often wrestle with the question, especially if they think that the nominee will betray the principles their defeated candidate represented. In fact, one recurring thread in the mainstream media’s speculations about the Democratic Party this year is how and to what extent Secretary Clinton will be able to harness the energies of Senator Bernie Sanders’ enthusiastic supporters. Will they give of their time and effort to see her elected, once their champion finally leaves the arena? Will they even vote?
So soul-searching by disappointed partisans is nothing new.
What makes the situation relatively unique is that it is the putative mainstream of the Republican Party, the “establishment,” that is questioning whether or not to back the likely nominee of what “establishment” Republicans clearly perceive as their party. Their party, it turns out, has been taken over by someone very different from what they sought as a standard bearer for 2016.
When insurgents and outsiders face the decision of what to do when their maverick candidate loses, it’s a question of whether or not to join the party anyway.
This time, it’s the establishment deciding whether to leave the party which they see as their own . . . or, less dramatically, how to remain associated with their party when its most visible leader is profoundly out of step with, perhaps even offensive to, their sense of themselves.
Political parties are dynamic creatures, much more so than we often realize. Today’s Republican and Democratic parties are quite different than the ones that existed when I was born in the late 1950s, and those parties were different than the ones that existed when my parents were born early in the 20th century.
One of the many forces reshaping parties in the post-modern era is the primary system. The need to secure votes from what turn out to be the most ideological of a party’s adherents constantly drives primary contenders toward more extreme positions. Both parties have seen it change their elected leaders. Today, there are substantial and nearly universal ideological divisions between elected Democrats and elected Republicans that simply were not as uniform in 1960 or 1970.
The political danger with the ideological “purification” of a political party is that the closer one gets to purity, the farther one gets from all of the voters who do not share the faith.
At the top of the national ticket, both parties have wrestled with this challenge. Since Senator George McGovern was overwhelmed by President Richard Nixon in 1972, Democrats have consistently nominated more mainstream candidates as their standard bearers (yes, even President Barack Obama, though an insurgent candidate in 2008, is mostly in the mainstream of the party). The party and its supporters have moved left, but their nominees still can talk across the ideological aisle. Similarly, Republican presidential nominees have, on balance, been more centrist than the Republican core constituency. That fact means that millions of voters on the farther right and farther left have been disappointed time and time again.
Enter Donald Trump.
Trump is far from the pure conservative Republican ideologues have wanted to lead the charge. At the same time, he has come to personify much of the red meat political conservatism that appeals, not to ideologues perhaps, but to a segment of the electorate that is nostalgic for an earlier (and perhaps mythical) time, one that blames the government (especially in Washington) for the demise of that fondly remembered era. He tells them they are right, and that with his strong leadership, things will be put back the way they should be and America will be great again.
Along the way to his almost-certain victory in the nomination fight, Donald Trump has been so focused on this message and this audience that he has left a trail of quotes and gestures that offer offense to nearly every other segment of American society.
Some establishment Republicans can’t stomach Donald Trump because of the way he has insulted them and those they support. Some, because of the way he has spoken of various groups and classes in our society. Some, because he clearly isn’t the thoroughgoing conservative they were looking for.
But now, the Republican Party apparently has a nominee. It apparently is Donald Trump.
Where does this leave the establishment?
Oddly, it leaves them on the outside, looking in on a party that is, in part at least, of their own making, but from which they are effectively excluded. They can come in the door if they like, but they won’t be able to call the tune or lead the dance.
And that, together with a sense that the party is of a different kind than they have enjoyed or would care to enjoy, is giving establishment Republicans pause.