Donald Trump has been the story of the Republican primary season, so it should be no surprise that he will be the last Republican candidate standing. It’s long been clear that he was either going to be the Republican nominee or the Republican leadership was going to have to pry away many of its rank-and-file supporters to deny him the prize. With Trump’s elevation to presumptive nominee status following the departure of the Cruz/Fiorina faux-ticket, we have an early answer to the question we posed several weeks ago about which path the party is going to take. We said there were three options: Trump would have enough delegates for a first ballot nomination; Trump wouldn’t have enough delegates for a first ballot nomination, in which case he would probably be turned away in subsequent balloting; or Trump would have close to enough delegates for a first ballot nomination, bringing about a tumultuous and unpredictable floor fight. We now know the answer is behind Door #1. It may not be official until California and New Jersey vote in June, but the suspense is gone.
This greatly simplifies the math and reduces the intrigue surrounding the convention, and delegates can stop worrying about still being in Cleveland in early August preparing for the 100th ballot while scrambling to find hotel rooms. But it doesn’t end the battle between the conservatives and reactionaries who seek the Republican Party for themselves. That will continue to rage and it may yet take unpredictable turns.
Think for a second about what is happening. Since the ascendency of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Republican Party has been the political home of movement conservatism. Its leadership has been unfailingly devoted to tax cuts and deregulation and reliably conservative on a range of social issues. Affiliated media and interest groups could punish those who deviated from orthodoxy, as George H. W. Bush learned when his lips moved and higher taxes came out. But Donald Trump does not come from this tradition. In fact, he doesn’t come from any ideological tradition. Listen to Donald Trump talk—at a campaign event or victory speech or press conference—and he speaks only of himself. He is a free agent, someone who says what the moment requires, often without thinking it through. He has given voice to people who are angry at their economic situation, angry at their social situation, angry at how they see the country changing, and angry at a Republican Party leadership that fanned their anger when it suited their needs. Trump is the man who puts his name on everything he owns. And when he accepts the presidential nomination in Cleveland he will own the Republican Party.
This threatens to leave movement conservatives without the political home they depend on to exercise power on a national scale. How they deal with this dawning reality will be one of the most important stories of this electoral cycle. We are about to move beyond delegate counts, second ballot strategies and rules committee intrigue to address the foundational question underlying all the talk of convention maneuvering: where do conservatives go now? Do they get behind Trump or do they walk away? There will most certainly be a range of responses to this question driven largely by whether loyalty to the party is greater than loyalty to conservatism. For many but not all, the pull of partisanship will outweigh their ideological leanings, but how close can conservatives get to Trump without compromising their future? Some conservatives may seek to run a candidate of their own. The vacuum is certainly there to be filled if the stomach is there to confront the hurdles of a full-fledged third party challenge, but the undertaking would be heroic. Still, it may happen. People do not take kindly to being thrown out of their home.
It will take some time for the magnitude of what’s happening to settle in, even though it’s been happening now for months. A Trump nomination is a reflexive, emotional reaction by voters tired of being beaten down by an economy that doesn’t work for them and leaders who disingenuously promise to repeal the demography of the twenty-first century. The Republican electorate has chosen to use its 2016 nomination to vent this frustration, and conservatives will pay the price. Let’s see how this plays out, because the battle for the future of the Republican Party and movement conservatism is now entering a mature phase where everyone may well find that when a party abandons pragmatism to scream at the top of its lungs, it finds itself shouting into the darkness.