Seven months ago, on the ides of March, Donald Trump won every primary contest except Ohio, knocked Marco Rubio out of the race, and left the Republican Party’s leaders facing a stark choice. They could mobilize fully against him, do everything possible to deny him the nomination, sustain and support his challengers all the way to the convention, knowing that Trump would try to bring the pillars of the party down upon their heads.
Or they could treat him like a normal front-runner, a normal potential nominee, and oppose him in normal ways or simply make their peace with his impending victory.
They chose the second course – in part because many of them despised Ted Cruz more than they feared Trump, but mostly because they feared breaking the party, feared Trump’s wrath and his voters’ mass defections, feared what would happen if those pillars fell.
This approach required prominent Republicans to present the country with a presidential nominee whom they themselves considered unfit for the office. It required them to spend the general election campaigning for a man whose potential victory many of them regarded with all-too-reasonable dread. It required them to compromise both principles and prudence for the sake of party unity, hoping that at some point – 2020? beyond? – the extreme risks a Trump nomination created for the country would be justified by some post-Trump breakthrough for the common good.
But in their defense, the alternative scenarios really were quite ugly. For the party to go full #NeverTrump after March would have required, in the best case, denying Trump the nomination even though he was likely to win a clear plurality of delegates. In the worst case, which the party faced once Trump dispatched Cruz and John Kasich in early May, it would have required stripping him of a nomination that he had won fairly under the Republican National Committee’s existing rules.
In the old days of smoke-filled rooms this would have been one thing, but in our age of mostly democratic primaries and “will of the people” expectations it would have been a nightmare. Chaos and protests and walkouts at the convention would have been only the beginning: If Trump didn’t mount a third-party challenge (I suspect he wouldn’t have, because of the logistical hurdles and expense), he would have been on every cable channel railing against Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus and the Cruz-Kasich ticket from June till November, with the mainstream media egging him on delightedly and a large slice of the conservative media in his corner.
Like Andrew Jackson, his spiritual ancestor, Trump would have denounced the “corrupt bargain” and vowed to fight again in 2020, even as he urged his supporters to stick it to the Cruz-Kasich GOP and stay home. His ire and his voters’ feelings of betrayal would have sent the official Republican ticket limping toward a likely November defeat, undercut every down-ballot Republican politician’s turnout effort, and extended the party’s civil war well into Hillary Clinton’s presidency.
An understandable fear of this scenario drove Ryan, Priebus and the rest of the party establishment to choose the path of less resistance, of #OkayFineTrump. Was it a compromise with morality, patriotism and honor? Perhaps. But at least it promised to keep the party’s temple from falling in, its pillars from collapse.
Except that it didn’t work out that way. Trump is officially the Republican nominee, not Cruz, Kasich or some last-minute white knight, and Ryan and Priebus are still officially supporting him. But all their compromises have availed them nothing: The chaos that the GOP elite hoped to contain by surrendering to Trump has engulfed the party even so.
The party’s leaders were afraid Trump would rage against them if they denied him the nomination; instead, he is raging against them for refusing to go to the mat for his caught-on-tape misogyny and pornographic boasts. They were afraid of infuriating his core voters by opposing him at the convention; instead, they are infuriating his core voters by keeping him at arm’s length in the election’s final stretch. They feared a war of Republican against Republican, conservative against conservative; they have one. They feared a turnout collapse, an inevitable defeat; they will most likely get both.
Above all, they feared the specter of a defeated Donald Trump railing against a corrupt convention bargain all through 2016 and beyond. So instead they will get Donald Trump railing against an establishment stab in the back, from the moment the polls close on Nov. 8 until he either wins the 2020 nomination or draws his dying breath.
History in its day to day is not a morality play. But sometimes there is a clear chastisement, a moment when the judgments of providence seem stark. And so it may be for the men who led the Republican Party into its Trumpian inferno.
In bending the knee to Trump last spring, they thought that they were buying party unity and a continued share of power, and paying for it with just a little of their decency, a mite of their patriotism, a soupçon of their honor.
They may find out soon enough that all this bargain bought them was an even harsher reckoning, and that all they will inherit is the wind.