If Ted Cruz had won the Republican nomination, the result would have been easier to interpret. It would have been a victory for the Club for Growth, for billionaire ideologues, for evangelical activists, for the Tea Party movement. It would have been a defeat for moderates and pragmatists and the Washington "establishment." A new regime would have triumphed in the GOP.
But instead, Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee. It is a defeat for much of the party. But it's not clear who, besides Trump, has won.
Trump's victory was not a triumph for the most ideological elements in the Republican Party. The usual suspects in the party's fratricide of recent years — the Club for Growth, the Koch brothers' network — mostly remained neutral or backed Cruz. Some of Trump's most determined antagonists, such as the Club for Growth and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), have ties to the Tea Party movement. "Very conservative" voters were rarely a Trump stronghold.
Conservative media often featured Trump, mostly for the same reasons that the conventional media did: He attracted audiences. In an era when analytics allow for a much more precise understanding of audience interest and when many media outlets are painfully aware of narrow profit margins, the incentives to cover Trump were strong. (If anything, Trump tended to be boosted by the conservative media outlets that deemphasize policy detail in favor of tribal appeals — compare how he was treated by National Review and by Breitbart).
Republican politicians nurtured the conservative media for decades, seeing it as a means to rally their base and perhaps gain a few converts. Now it has arguably undermined their control of their party.
Unlike Cruz, Donald Trump is hard to place in the GOP ideological framework. He had the support of no identifiable party faction (no, the "alt-right" doesn't count). The party "establishment" (an ill-defined term) saw him as an unelectable racist. Movement conservatives saw him as insufficiently ideological. Free marketers were shocked by his unorthodox views on international trade and entitlements. Many social conservatives were horrified by his gambling fortunes and multiple divorces, as well as his unconvincing avowals of religious faith.
But Trump's lack of interest in elite opinion helped him make appeals that other candidates avoided. Plenty of polls over the years showed that a large number of Republicans (though not necessarily a majority) harbored anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attitudes. Other candidates had been willing to make "dog whistle" appeals. But Trump's celebrity and bravado let him use a bullhorn.
And it turned out that nativism was more important to many Republican voters than either economic or social conservatism. If any cause shares Trump's victory, it is immigration restriction. There's no anti-immigration equivalent of the National Rifle Association — a large, national interest group treated with respect by most Republican politicians. Perhaps the Trump campaign will give birth to one.
For most of the campaign, Republican elites faced a collective action problem. Almost none wanted to see Trump as the nominee, but they faced incentives to back different candidates. An "open seat" race attracted a huge field, but with no clear frontrunner. The burgeoning conservative political entertainment marketplace invited those who saw Fox News and talk radio and the speaking circuit as a means to riches.
Others entered the race for more obscure reasons. In a post–Citizens United world, numerous candidates were able to find wealthy patrons to fund a Super PAC or a 501(c)(3). In such a large field, with many little-known candidates, an outrageous celebrity stood out.
Meanwhile, most GOP officeholders remained on the sidelines. By the time party actors converged on Marco Rubio, there wasn't enough time to boost the young Floridian. Once he was gone, a Trump-Cruz battle was too unappetizing to tempt many top Republicans into the fray. "Stop Trump" efforts proved of limited utility.
Republicans also lacked clear leadership. That is typical for American parties that do not control the White House. But the GOP seems to have been especially without a dominant voice. While George W. Bush has become more popular as an ex-president, few people see him as an elder statesman of the GOP, and he seemed to be mostly a liability for his brother, Jeb Bush. George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole were simply too old and frail to play significant roles. Mitch McConnell has long been unpopular. Paul Ryan only took power a few months ago. John McCain has never been beloved by the party faithful. Only Mitt Romney sought to block Trump — and it wasn't enough.
What will Donald Trump's legacy be to the Republican Party? It's not altogether clear.
If he goes down to a humiliating defeat, Republicans may seek to disavow him completely. Unlike Barry Goldwater or George McGovern, Trump doesn't seem to have inspired a cohort of activists that could remake his party in the long run.
If he loses by a narrow margin — and today's partisan environment probably gives him a higher floor than he would have had in another era — Republicans might adopt a more nuanced approach. GOP leaders might distance themselves from Trump's toxic persona while embracing some themes, such as a more nationalist approach to immigration and trade.
If Trump wins — and we cannot dismiss this possibility — we may see just how much a president could remake a party.
This post is part of a Mischiefs of Faction series on the Republican Party. See the previous entry here.