For the candidate who promises his devout congregation of followers that his unremitting string of victories will be so numerous that they’ll be hungry for the nostalgic value of loss, it is a cosmic irony that he is almost certain to lose to Hillary Clinton in November. As the Democratic primary race begins to look more and more like a predictable affair, with the former secretary of state emerging victorious after a modest and galvanizing challenge from her left flank, Donald Trump retains his claim to front-runner status on the GOP side. There are almost no public surveys that suggest Trump could win the popular vote in November. While pitting a moderate liberal against a populist liberal would surely shake up the electoral map, the campaign Democrats would wage against Trump would likely render him even more unelectable in the autumn than he is today. For those Americans with an appropriate fear of the awesome power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and legitimacy conferred upon the nation’s chief executive to apply lethal force, that is by no means a lamentable outcome.
While there is an outside chance Trump could win the White House in November at the head of a parade of horribles, it’s pretty unlikely. The effect of his winning the Republican Party presidential nomination will then be rather singular: the temporary devastation of the conservative movement. That word “temporary” is important. It’s easy for Republicans who know quite well that Trump is not conservative, and barely even pretends to be one, to indulge despair. That’s a bit self-indulgent. Conservatism has known the wilderness before. While there have been popular conservatives, conservatism properly understood is not popular. The vehicle through which conservatives achieve political power – the Republican Party — may be well and truly euthanized in the event of a Trump nomination, but the ideology to which its most effective politicians adhere will not be so easily put down.
The conservative movement’s hostile takeover of the GOP began in earnest in the 2010 midterms and was all but complete four years later. By 2014, many of the party’s elected representatives of influence and authority were conservatives who defeated the Republican Party’s anointed leaders riding waves of grassroots discontent. The conservative movement, enlivened and emboldened by a proliferation of vibrant movement voices in center-right media, had expanded the map and overtaken the ossified party “establishment.” By the beginning of Barack Obama’s final two years in office, his party was decimated at the state and federal level, and the Republicans who replaced those ousted Democrats were of a conservative variety that the GOP of the last decade would have regarded as radicals.
But every revolution is subject to counterrevolution, and that backlash is upon the GOP today. The movement leaders who were useful for ginning up enthusiasm for the conservative takeover of the Republican Party found themselves discarded and unloved when the revolutionaries became the respectable executors of political authority. Those prideful agents of chaos who were less useful when stability was the goal found themselves drawn into Donald Trump’s orbit. So, too, have those loyal to the Republican ancien régime found a protest vehicle in the form of John Kasich, who appears to be leading what he believes to be a restoration campaign for those compassionate conservatives who find themselves cast aside. Together, these utterly incompatible movements have found common cause. They represent a challenge to the conservative ascension – which seems to have settled on dual scions Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – like nothing else in recent memory. By virtue of the conservative movement’s own natural disunity and the factiousness baked into its DNA, it may not find a sense of purpose behind a single avatar before it is too late. The counterrevolutionaries may take the citadel.
The Federalist’s David Harsanyi has performed an admirable examination of the effects of a Trump victory in the race for the GOP nomination and come up with an appropriately dour conclusion. The effects of such an event would be disastrous for the Republican Party. The party’s hard-won majorities in Congress would likely be lost. A generation of liberals that were read last rites at the state level in the Obama era would find a new lease on life. The achievements of the Obama era – centralized health care, détente with Iran, branding the enforcement of immigration law racist, and the elevation of corrosive identity politics to a central tenet of the liberal faith; all would be ratified and made permanent as a result of a Trump nomination. But Harsanyi also warns that the conservative movement itself would be virtually undone. He is right insofar as the Republican Party would likely coalesce around a toxic demagogue who does not share their convictions and who would render the movement’s most influential voices hypocrites. But the conservative movement would live on where it is most comfortable and where it has called home for most of its existence: exile.
Conservatism cannot and should not make any peace with a figure so ill suited and, most importantly, disinclined to serve as its standard-bearer. Whereas figures as essential to understanding the intellectual foundations of conservatism like Edmund Burke warned against the prosecution of perpetual conflict and favored reconciliation, he also knew that comity follows unambiguous victory. He and other conservative thought leaders stood for eternal principles over ephemeral things like power. Conservatives do not bend before the mob. They do not surrender their ideals to the passions of the moment. They fight, and they cajole, and they persuade, but they do not acquiesce for the illusory promise of “winning” or of meting out of petty and personal revenge.
Bouts of hysteria are by definition fleeting. Donald Trump swears he will not run for the presidency as an independent, but he is already leading a third-party candidacy. His appeal is one that draws a few adherents from both traditionally liberal and conservative camps, and it is likely to be as fleeting as any third party moment in American history in which the unifying principle is one strong personality. The lifespan of the Bull Moose is notoriously short.
So it may be conservatism’s lot to return to the wilderness. A movement that does not promise its adherents one favor save for the threat of total independence and the fruits of their own labor should be comfortable in exile. But while that prospect is a terrifying one, conservatives should not surrender to the challenges of the moment. If their lot is to lose, then the right should do so with the understanding that theirs is a timeless ideology. It can and has survived setbacks and struggles, and it will survive this. If the conservative revolution that began with the Tea Party dies in Cleveland this summer, conservatives should not succumb to fatalism. They should however be clear-eyed about the challenges they will face in again trying to wrestle the Republican Party back from the grips of a charlatan pretender and his coterie of flatterers. Compromise is the true American virtue; it is the stuff that makes the republic run, and Republicans are skilled compromisers. If this election cycle has demonstrated anything, though, it is that Republicans are not necessarily conservatives.