Reporters this week discovered a full-fledged Republican civil war. They are several years late. It should surprise precisely no one that Donald Trump is directing his rage at Paul Ryan for instructing members of the House Republican caucus to oppose the nominee if it will help them hold their seats. The self-described unshackled Donald Trump now taking aim at party leaders is the same candidate who rose to prominence by giving voice to Republican voter anger at party elites, which for years had been expressed in Congress by the rump “Freedom Caucus” that checkmated Ryan and his predecessor John Boehner. What we see now is an emotionally unstable candidate escalating his rhetoric against those elites in order to construct a defense against his own failures as his campaign falters. But his supporters have long been furious with party leadership, so they are willing consumers of his rage. Coming as it is during the final weeks of a national campaign, Trump’s assault is putting excruciating pressure on fault lines years in the making.
Wolves and Sheep readers know that my Premise A about this political moment is the Republican Party has long been two incompatible parties living under one roof: a traditional conservative party and a radicalized reactionary party. This represents an unhealthy change in the Republican coalition of the Reagan and Bush years because the two groups want opposite things. As a general rule, conservatives wish to preserve while radicals want to destroy. In the current context, Ryan and his caucus would like to preserve their House majority. Trump and his angry followers are more than willing to tear it down.
This portends an all-out party split if the result of the election is total defeat up and down the ballot. But what would such a split look like? The winner-take-all nature of the American electoral system argues against the long-term viability of multiple parties. The Republican Party minus its radical faction would be too small to compete nationally and in many states, while a reactionary party would be even smaller and unable to expand its appeal. A three-party arrangement would cede tremendous political territory to the Democrats and over time would generate intense pressure for reunification. But it would have to be reunification on terms other than what we see today because the two groups as constituted have diametrically opposed objectives (see Premise A). Until now, the political cost of disintegration coupled with the party’s strong institutional roots have held Republicans together in a deeply dysfunctional marriage where the combatants engage in mutually destructive behavior but can’t leave each other.
So now Donald Trump, as is his inclination, is suing for divorce, and his supporters appear to be on board. Trump’s emotional need to escalate his rhetoric in proportion to his rate of failure has left him on the cusp of advocating for his partisans to abandon down ballot Republicans when they cast their votes for him. If Trump can claim credit for bringing down the Republican party-in-government, that most certainly would be the point of no return for the conservative faction. But then what? There is precedent for parties dividing into irreconcilable camps, with the coalitions eventually emerging from the carnage looking quite different from what existed before, although resolving issues this deep will take many years. Months ago, I argued that Republicans should have opposed Trump’s nomination at the cost of conceding the election in order to maintain the initiative in the more important rebuilding process that was bound to follow. Now it’s becoming evident why.