I would not want to be Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell right now. Or really any elected Republican elite.
They are facing an impossible choice. And the impossibility of this choice is not just a 2016 problem. It's a problem for the Republican Party going forward. And it's a problem that has no obvious resolution other than the crack-up of the Republican Party coalition as we know it.
Trump is not likely to drop out. And to abandon him now is to court both backlash among a sizable number of core Republican voters who still like Trump, and to poke the angry bear that is a Trump scorned. It is to bring on a full-scale civil war within the party in the month before the election.
But to stand by Trump is to support a man who has proven himself since the start of the campaign to not only be dangerous and morally reprehensible, but who is also opposed to much of what especially Ryan has argued the Republican Party ought to stand for. To stand by Trump is to allow him to continue to define the brand of the Republican Party without even as much as a fight (even if it may well be a losing fight).
For individual members who are in close races or states, renouncing Trump is a transparently desperate electoral strategy, since these candidates now understand they can't win without reaching beyond core Republicans. Not surprisingly, there is a pretty clear pattern in who is abandoning Trump now: it's members whose reelection is in doubt. But for Republicans in safer seats, renouncing Trump is no gain and all risk, given Trump's resilient support among core Republican voters.
The problem for party leaders who might want to abandon Trump is that most Republicans are in pretty safe seats these days. Which means most of them are not rushing to abandon Trump to win re-election.
At this point, it seems almost certain Trump will lose.
But post-November, this dilemma is not going away. Trump and a large number of party voters and Trump media acolytes are going to blame the Republican establishment for abandoning him, and for letting Clinton win and (probably) letting the Democrats take back the Senate and appoint liberal Supreme Court judges. And if Democrats make gains in the House as well (likely), the Republicans who remain will represent more, not less, pro-Trump places.
Yet most of the actual elected members of Congress, even those in safe Republican seats, are still predominantly alignment with the Washington Republican establishment, and deeply opposed to the inchoate Trumpist nativist nationalist populism of white grievance. That is not the direction they want to see their party move, and they mostly see at as a losing long-term strategy. But they don't have any good options for avoiding it.
Assuming Clinton wins, Republican elite leaders basically have three options, all bad.
- Unify the party around anti-Clinton rhetoric.
- Capitulate to Trumpism
- Abandon the Republican Party as a hopelessly devalued brand, and start a new party.
1) Unify the party around anti-Clinton rhetoric
For the Obama years, Republican leaders mostly elided the disagreements with their own voters by swamping voters with increasingly aggressive anti-Obama rhetoric: You may not love us, but Democrats are destroying America. This held an increasingly fractious party together. Can it work with Clinton? Maybe. But there are two complications here.
The first complication is that a scorned Trump is going to exact revenge. Trump has repeatedly shown he is more interested in taking his opponents down than in unifying the party. And Republican voters have so turned against their own leadership that there is likely enough support for him and his acolytes to accomplish this, should they want to. Trump certainly will have plenty of allies in conservative media.
The second complication is that a President Clinton will almost certainly be more forceful than Obama in trying to bridge gaps with Republicans. And Republican pro-business donors will likely put a lot of pressure on congressional Republicans to get on board with some of Clinton's likely pro-business agenda items, much of which will be cleverly designed to split the Republican Party.
2) Capitulate to Trumpism
Republican leaders could simply decide to give in to Trumpism, and become the nationalist populist party of white grievance: Fully crack down on immigration, oppose trade deals, and withdraw from the world. This avoids conflict within the party. Republican voters are mostly there already.
But this means Paul Ryan and his allies essentially give up on achieving their conservative policy agenda. More significantly, it also means Republican give up any chance of expanding the Republican electorate beyond a shrinking core demographic of angry white men.
This is probably the path of least resistance in the short-term. But it is almost certainly long-term disaster for the Republican Party, given the demographics.
3) Abandon the Republican Party as a hopelessly devalued brand, and start a new party
The most unlikely alternative would be for Republican elites to decide that Republican Party is now tarnished brand and create a new party (maybe call it the Conservative Party?). The model here is the Republican Party of the 1850s, which arose when the Whigs were hopelessly divided between their Northern and Southern wings as the fight over slavery became the central dividing issue in American politics. Perhaps Ryan and his allies can build something new that represents the principles they subscribe to, without having to capitulate to the hateful elements that have dragged down the party. After all, Republican Party identification as now at near-historic lows.
The obvious problem with this is they probably couldn't win many elections with this strategy, since most Republican voters are more in line with Trump than they are with Ryan. A new Conservative Party might win some seats, but the result would almost certainly be ceding control of both chambers of Congress to Democrats.
Note that in the 1860s, Republicans were successful as new party because of unusual circumstances. The Democratic Party in 1860 split into two over the slavery issue, nominating both a northern candidate (Stephen Douglas) and a southern candidate (John Breckenridge). This allowed Lincoln to win with only 39.8% of the popular vote (Douglas got 29.5%, Breckenridge got 18.1%). If Democrats genuinely split into a Clinton wing and a Sanders wing, a new Conservative Party might be a viable strategy for Republican elites. But absent such a split, it seems unlikely that Republican elites could re-create a winning new party. They are most likely stuck with the Republican Party as it is.
No good options for Republican elites
Since none of these are particularly good options for Republican elites, they will probably vacillate between them. My guess is they will first try option #1, unite against Clinton. But they will fail at it (because Trump will torpedo it, and Clinton will make it difficult), eventually leaving them with option #2, capitulating to Trumpism.
This may leave some principled Republicans to try option #3, forming a third party, or possibly running as an independent. But mostly it will effectively mark an end to the Republican coalition that was solidified in 1980 and has lasted almost four decades. That coalition is effectively finished. After a long period of stable gridlock, American politics is now entering a newly chaotic period. The party coalitions are realigning.