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What now? Ross Douthat on the future of Trump and the Republican Party.

“A war of Republican against Republican, conservative against conservative.”

President Donald Trump says that he no longer wants a “deal” on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Party faced a difficult choice seven months ago, according to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat: "They could mobilize fully against" Donald Trump, who had just bulldozed his way through the crucial March primaries. "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."

The first option carried immense risk. Among other things, it meant intervening in the primary process and, consequently, alienating millions of Republican voters. However beneficial in the long term, this would surely have brought "the pillars of the party down upon their heads," as Douthat concedes.

The second option meant tethering the party to a manifestly unfit candidate, to a man they didn’t understand and couldn’t control. The risks here were equally great, if only because they were harder to predict.

Republicans choose door B, and chaos has enveloped the party since.

In his most recent column, Douthat suggests the GOP got exactly what it hoped to avoid by surrendering to Trump: "a war of Republican against Republican, conservative against conservative."

I spoke with Douthat on Thursday, just as Trump’s week from hell was concluding. I asked him if he thought the Republicans were wrong to bow before Trump in March, and whether he thinks they can survive the civil war he’s wrought within the party.

Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, follows.

Sean Illing

Where are you at right now in terms of your anxiety about Trump and Trumpism?

Ross Douthat

Define "anxiety."

Sean Illing

Well, how much sleep are you losing thinking about what’s happening to the Republican Party, especially after the implosion we’ve witnessed this week?

Ross Douthat

I always thought there was a strong chance of a major meltdown, and indeed we’ve had meltdowns almost on a cyclical basis, sort of every few weeks or every month or so. This is probably the worst one yet. But I don't think there's anything new or shocking about Trump's character being revealed here.

I think mostly what's being revealed is the folly of the party leadership in imagining that they could control, contain, or otherwise manage having him as the nominee. This has been a very bad few weeks for Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus and Mitch McConnell and other people who made the choice to basically live with this man as their nominee.

But I think the underlying dynamics for the party in the country are still similar to what they were before this meltdown happened. Except now we can all but rule out a Trump victory in a way that we couldn't completely a few weeks ago. I think it's fair to say that's the real shift. It was only three weeks ago that I was still writing columns that took seriously the possibility that he could somehow sneak out a win.

Sean Illing

Is the collapse this week just another vindication of the NeverTrumpers, of the Republicans who thought the risks of dethroning Trump or handing the election to Clinton were more tolerable than the risks of allowing him to become the face of the party?

Ross Douthat

Well, there are a lot of different divisions that get lumped together under NeverTrump. I don't think that the original position of the NeverTrumpers was that you had to simply give the election away to Hillary Clinton. I think once it became clear that Trump was likely to win a plurality of the delegates, you were left with a series of bad options, all of which made it more likely than not that Hillary would be elected president.

Sean Illing

True, all of the options were terrible for Republicans, but I’d argue it was a less terrible option for Republicans to usurp Trump at the convention and risk alienating all of his supporters.

Ross Douthat

I think right now it looks like the party has ended up in the situation they hoped to avoid, because you've had to have Republican politicians distancing themselves from Trump while still technically endorsing him. Thus you have plenty of material for him to tell his supporters that they've been betrayed by the Republican Party and betrayed by the Republican establishment.

And, yes, it is less overt in certain ways than it would've been if he'd lost the nomination at the convention, and maybe we don't know exactly how voter psychology will play out. And it may be that by letting Trump go all this way and have all these scandals come out, some of his voters will be less likely to listen to him once November is over.

I don't know for sure, but I think that from the point of view of the country, and from the point of view of a party's obligation to nominate someone who’s actually fit for office, resisting Trump more than the party did would've been the right thing to do. And whatever it would've cost is the price that the party may end up paying anyway.

Sean Illing

We hear on the back end of every one of these scandals that this may be the one that really costs Trump, but they all seem to melt away after a few news cycles. Does this week feel like an actual game changer to you?

Ross Douthat

I think we've had sort of a cascade of game changers. I think the first debate and Trump's reaction to it was a big shift in the race. Not an absolutely decisive one, but a big one.

I see this wave of material as locking in a shift that had already happened. After the first debate, Trump’s path to the presidency became nearly nonexistent. And what these events are doing is basically determining the size of his ultimate defeat.

Sean Illing

How do you think Republican leaders, people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, are handling this? Their contortions are getting harder to manage by the day. They can’t rescind their endorsements, but they’re obliged to distance themselves from everything he says.

The political calculus is straightforward: They don’t want to risk depressing turnout and losing down-ballot races. But can they keep this up for another three weeks?

Ross Douthat

Right, that certainly remains the basic calculus. I think there are some prominent Republicans who imagine Trump could win and convince themselves that they could control him, and there are others who have been rooting for him to lose all along, even if they officially endorsed him, so there's always been that division.

But I think the basic calculus for both groups is that whatever happens with Trump, you can't be in open war with your nominee and expect to win down ballot, because it just kills turnout or it encourages people to show up and vote for Trump but not the down-ballot candidates.

Ross Douthat.

Sean Illing

Paul Ryan is smart enough to see what’s happening. I think he just wants to contain the GOP circular firing squad and focus on preserving the Republican majority in Congress.

Ross Douthat

But Trump isn't interested in keeping it quiet. I mean, Trump has always enjoyed fighting with Republicans more than he's enjoyed fighting with Hillary Clinton, and the more the actual presidency seems out of reach, the more he's going to want to go down waging war on both Paul Ryan and the New York Times at the same time.

Certainly, the people around him are eager, or at least some of the people around him are eager, for that kind of war. This is the Breitbart perspective — they want to take on the GOP and the globalists and the mainstream media at the same time. I think that that view has a lot of appeal in Trump Tower right now.

Sean Illing

I think that’s right, and it’s pretty clear that there was a pivot this week from Trump. He’s always been openly hostile to the Republican establishment, but now he’s "unshackled." I suspect this will get much uglier in the next few weeks.

Ross Douthat

Part of it depends on what else is out there, right, what other material is out there? Because you can imagine something even worse than what we've seen, something that would force more Republican defections.

It seems like at the end of the day, you had that wave of defections. A few of them walked their defections back, and I haven't yet seen how other Republicans are reacting to the latest wave of groping allegations. But you could imagine a situation where most Republicans just sort of stick to a Paul Ryan–like line, which is, "Yes, he’s a bad person, but we’re still supporting him because Hillary’s worse."

But you could imagine something more significant if more Republicans feel they have to defect. Then you could have more people attacking Trump from within the Republican Party, and things could spiral even further.

Honestly, I think for the long-term future of the party, the question is more: What does Trump's reputation look like among his own voters after Election Day, and to what extent does he want to keep fighting the fight all the way until 2020 and beyond?

Sean Illing

That's an interesting point, because he's clearly already laying down the narrative that this thing is rigged, and that if he does lose, it’s because the Republican establishment wanted him to.

He's amassed this cult of personality, this huge following, and I don't think he's going to go quietly into that good night if he loses in November. And then the question becomes: What happens with this movement that he's created, and how badly will it damage Republicans down the road?

Ross Douthat

Well, the other question is how transferable is it? Because, as you said, there's a cult of personality element to Trump’s appeal, and we’ve all spent the last year arguing about this guy’s core ideological appeal. Some of your colleagues at Vox are inclined to say that it’s just mostly white racial anxiety rather than economic angst.

But whatever it is, Trump plays this immensely crucial role as a sort of celebrity figure, and the big question for the Republicans in 2018 is this: Will the Trumpist movement show up in the 2018 primaries or not?

Sean Illing

Do you think Trumpism can persist without Trump, because I'm not entirely sure that Trump will be that interested in politics after this whole thing is over? Perhaps he returns to flipping buildings or running horrendous television shows, or maybe he creates some kind of media company.

Ross Douthat

Well, maybe, but if it's a media company, it'll be a media company that's focused on politics. The problem for him is that he's trashed his brand, and so the new brand he has is as a champion of Trumpism. To the extent that he wants to monetize that, he has to keep on playing the part.

So I don't think this is going away, and the similarities between what Trump is doing and what we're seeing in Western Europe especially, which is a turn toward more populist politicians, a turn toward nationalism as a kind of resistance against globalization, are unmistakable.

Sean Illing

Do you worry that Trumpism is what the Republican Party has become, and that even without Trump himself, this movement, such as it, will persist in the GOP ranks?

Ross Douthat

No. Trump represents a faction — a large faction, but still a faction — within the Republican Party. We’re talking something along the lines of 35, 40 percent of the Republican Party, plus a segment of the disaffected center, which is why he does better than other Republican politicians in parts of the Midwest and Upper Midwest.

Sean Illing

Thirty-five to 40 percent is pretty damn significant.

Ross Douthat

Well, the Republican Party is like eight sub-parties in a country of 300 million people; it’s a large and diverse and complicated entity. But what is true is that parts of Trumpism are suggestive of where conservative politics is probably going around the Western world, which is in a more nationalistic direction, in a direction that tries to emphasize the national interest and the kind of defense mechanism against both the economic cost and the perceived loss in political agency associated with globalization.

Sean Illing

If that’s where conservative politics is going, what does the Republican Party look like in five or 10 years?

Ross Douthat

I started my career as a journalist in an era when it seemed that the Democratic Party was going to crack up because of the Iraq War, and it seemed like the Republican Party was ascendant and confined by a sort of evangelical-Catholic political alliance that had a liberal streak about theocracy. And that was only 12 years ago.

We live in a very different political world now, so it's important not to assume that the trends of the moment will necessarily continue. I don't think anyone would recognize the Republican Party of Donald Trump if they were brought here from the Republican Party of George W. Bush, and we may not recognize either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party 10 years hence.