Right now, conservatives are being torn between two conflicting ways of thinking about the clear frontrunner to be their party's presidential nominee. The first says that apart from Donald Trump's chances in a general election (which aren't good), his nomination would be a disaster for conservatism and the party that's supposed to embody it. Trump has no history of commitment to the party's ideals, and in the past he's been pro-choice, expressed approval of single-payer health systems, and palled around with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Having him as the nominee would leave conservatives without a party.
The second way of thinking says that while all that may be true, there's little choice but to make peace with the possibility that Trump could be the nominee. Republicans have tried everything they could think of to take him down, and nothing has worked. Criticize him and he gets stronger. Watch him commit what ought to be terrible gaffes, and he gets stronger. Wait for voters to come to their senses, and he only gets stronger. So they might as well just make the best of what could be a bad situation. And maybe in the end he won't be that bad. Sure, he's unpredictable and shallow, but at least he's basically on their side.
While there's plenty of wisdom in that path to acceptance, the advocates of the first view, those now verging on panic, have a more accurate assessment of Trump. Not only is he not a true conservative, he'll betray them even sooner than they think.
And today's conservatives have fed on narratives of betrayal for a long time. The "Stabbed in the Back!" myth is how some of them explain every setback in foreign affairs the country suffered — Roosevelt stabbed us in the back at Yalta, allowing communism to spread; protesters stabbed us in the back in the 1960s, sapping our will to win the Vietnam War; Barack Obama stabbed us in the back by leaving Iraq, depriving America of the glorious victory George W. Bush had brought.
The betrayal narrative works at home, too: Social conservatives believe they're constantly betrayed by Republican leaders who demand their labor at election time but then let their priorities fall by the wayside once they gain power. And Tea Partiers say the GOP's Washington leadership betrays conservatism by knuckling under to Obama.
But that would pale beside the betrayal they'll experience if Donald Trump is their nominee.
I say that because there's no reason to think that Trump won't turn on a dime the instant he has to face a general electorate, and begin advocating a whole new set of policies. He adopted an entirely new set of beliefs for this race, one attuned to what his current audience wants — not just xenophobic, but fervently pro-life, pro-gun, pro-God, and pro-whatever else he thinks primary voters want to hear. Trump panders shamelessly to whoever he's talking to, he has no genuine ideology, and he won't feel tied to anything he's said before, any more than he's tied to his previous positions on health care or abortion.
Unlike other politicians who struggle to explain any hint of contradiction between what they're advocating now and what they've advocated before, Trump waves it all away. Remember all the painful contortions Mitt Romney went through to convince Republicans he was in complete agreement with them and had renounced his prior hints of moderation? Trump doesn't bother with that. Who cares what I said then? This is what I'm saying now, and anyone who has a problem with it is a low-energy loser.
Unlike other politicians, Trump seems to have no friends, no allies (other than the occasional crackpot like Sarah Palin or Joe Arpaio), and no commitments. He's completely unmoored from everything that gives any sort of shape and predictability to politics. Who's advocating for Trump? Today maybe it's some talk radio hosts, but if they say something he doesn't like, boom, they're dead to him. All he has is targets and enemies; any cooperation he shares with anyone is temporary and conditional on him being "treated fairly." The instant he decides he isn't, his former friend becomes his foe.
The idea of commitments is particularly key. Because Trump has no real history in conservative or Republican politics (beyond writing the occasional check) and because he isn't bothering to court the people and groups who populate the party's institutions and coalition, he has no promises to keep. Again, the contrast with Romney is instructive. By the time Romney became the GOP nominee in 2012, he had not only moved right but convinced everyone that he'd govern right. And he would have — wherever the contents of his heart laid, he would have been dependent on the party he led to govern effectively, if at all. There was no going back.
But Trump doesn't care about the party, and it turns out that a lot of Republican voters don't either — maybe enough to carry him to the nomination. But if he gets that nomination, he'll be confronting an entirely new set of voters he has to persuade. It won't just be angry Republicans anymore; now he'll need a majority. So he'll take those conservative policy positions he's adopted — but which he obviously knows little about and cares about even less — and toss them aside. And unlike other Republicans, he won't be tied down by having been too specific about any of it. When your detailed policy proposal consists of "It'll be great," you can go in any direction you want.
Once that happens, conservatives will lose their minds with rage, and they'll be right to. All they'll have left is the fact that Donald Trump isn't Hillary Clinton — and that's what he'll count on, to keep them in line while he courts the center. At least when he loses, they can say they never liked him anyway.