Can the Republican Party Secede From Itself?

Mitt Romney took to the airwaves last Thursday and reamed into Donald Trump, urging Republican voters to oppose his nomination in a tone-deaf plea to return the party to its rightful owners. He called Trump a phony, fraud and bully, and urged the Republican electorate to vote strategically – Rubio in Florida, Kasich in Ohio, Cruz anywhere he’s strong enough – to deny Trump a first-ballot convention victory.  His strategy dangles from the tenuous twin assumptions that Rubio and Kasich have enough strength to win their home states after going a combined 1-19 to open the primary season (Minnesota!), and that Republican voters are ready to listen to Mitt Romney.

It’s true that Trump had a weak showing in Saturday’s contests in Louisiana, Kentucky, Kansas and Maine, winning the first two by narrow margins and losing to Cruz in the others, but that may have had less to do with Romney’s pronouncement than with Trump’s pattern of underperforming in caucus states and closed primaries, or his jarring comments in last Thursday’s middle school locker room presidential debate. Notwithstanding Saturday’s results, Trump continues to be in a commanding position going into what will be tipping point primaries in Florida and Ohio in ten days, and Republican elites, including Romney, have no idea what to do about it.

Whatever positive response Romney may have expected from more conventional corners of the Republican rank-and-file, he should have known his words would embolden Trump-friendly voters who wouldn’t appreciate a lecture from one of the most prominent members of the Republican establishment. It may not have occurred to Romney that it might appear a bit patronizing to tell people who are disgusted with Republican leadership how to vote, that they might respond with mystification, dismissal and contempt. Of course they’re going to vote for Trump in defiance of the wishes of party elites. Isn’t that the whole point?

Romney’s anti-Trump gauntlet may not change many minds but it is a milestone in the inevitable sorting of Republican leaders into Trump and anti-Trump camps that we discussed a few days ago. If they are unable to save the party from its own voters, some Republican elders are floating the idea of running a candidate they can accept on another ballot line. Weekly Standard editor William Kristol has been promoting a third party option ever since Trump became a real threat to win the nomination, and in the past few days the idea has gained some currency as a trickle of elected Republicans joined Romney to say they could not vote for Trump. The most convenient home for an “independent Republican” ticket would be a third party with established ballot access like the Libertarian Party or the Constitution Party. To Kristol, this would be no more than a “one-time emergency adjustment” that could end once the rank-and-file stops misbehaving.

This is an unprecedented proposal and it speaks to the level of desperation over Trump’s ascendancy exemplified by Romney’s speech. We can understand it in terms of our conceptual framework that Republicans are already two parties, a conservative party and an incompatible reactionary party.  Think for a second about what is being proposed here. Kristol would abandon the Republican label to Trump, permitting the party to be redefined in his image as a reactionary party, and set up shop elsewhere with a conservative nominee.  There have been party splits before – Republicans experienced significant divides in 1992 when Ross Perot challenged George W. Bush and in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt challenged William Howard Taft – but in those cases the establishment was challenged from the outside, as Perot self-financed an independent run and Roosevelt ran a progressive third party challenge to the incumbent Taft. Running an “independent Republican” candidate would constitute a full-fledged retreat by party leaders and would cede control of the Republican political apparatus to Trump. The consequences would be neither limited nor fleeting.

It is of course too soon to know if such an outcome is likely, but the fact that it is being advanced by conservative opinion leaders as a viable response to a Trump nomination suggests just how cornered they feel. Party coalitions do unravel, but we haven’t seen it happen since the Democrats divided in 1968, and we haven’t seen a major party disintegrate since 1856. If talk about an independent Republican candidacy becomes serious as Donald Trump amasses more delegates, we should ask how and how much a party alignment that’s held since 1968 will be altered by Republican attempts to sort out their irreconcilable differences.