No political dynamic in the last few years has been as fascinating and as important in driving events as the civil war within the Republican Party. Among its many consequences is the presidential candidacy of one Donald John Trump, who now looks exceedingly likely to be his party's nominee for president. Whether Trump turns America into a paradise of winning where each of us has our own gold-plated penthouse and sequence of progressively younger Eastern European model wives (metaphorically speaking, of course), or finally brings about a global apocalypse that sends us all to a fiery and well-deserved end, well that's something we'll have to just wait and see. But in the meantime, Republicans are asking themselves: Is Trump going to destroy this party, and the conservative movement while he's at it?
That's what many people fear. I've argued recently that conservatives are right to be afraid that he won't be a reliable conservative, because he almost certainly won't. As soon as he's faced with a general electorate, he'll become a more moderate candidate. Conservatives will feel betrayed. But that's not the same thing as destroying their party or their ideological movement. George Will recently wrote that "If Trump is the Republican nominee in 2016, there might not be a conservative party in 2020." But let's not go overboard.
The argument for Trump the Destroyer goes like this: Because he has no particular commitment to conservative ideals, Trump will essentially destroy the GOP's brand. Sometimes he'll be a real conservative, but at other times he won't. All that's distinctive about the GOP will be subsumed to his overwhelming personality, and voters will lose their sense of who Republicans are. Down-ballot candidates, furthermore, will have to spend their time distancing themselves from his latest outrageous statement, making it harder for them to win and further weakening the party. He'll particularly complicate the task of reaching out to fast-growing non-white segments of the electorate.
Some of that may be true, but the fact is that most of the really appalling things about Trump are merely extensions of the GOP and the conservative movement. Trump's appalling nativism is only a slightly more unadorned version of what the party's constituents believe; even if he had never entered the race, the other candidates would still have been accusing each other of supporting "amnesty" and not being tough enough on the foreign horde seeking to invade our land. The whole "reaching out to minorities" thing wasn't going too well before Trump came along.
And how will Trump affect the civil war within the party? His nomination might represent a loss by the "establishment," but nearly every candidate, with the partial exception of Jeb Bush, claimed to be fighting the establishment on behalf of fed up voters. It's important to understand that those voters' disaffection began with being out of power. They didn't like what President Obama was doing (or his very presence), and they sought out Tea Party candidates who would mirror their disgust back at them. Then the establishment reacted by saying, "We feel that way too!" and promising things they could never deliver as long as Obama was in the White House, like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Then the voters' disgust turned on those leaders and their inability to achieve anything.
Now let's imagine that Trump were to win the presidency. If that happens, it will almost certainly mean Republicans had held on to both houses of Congress as well. And then you just watch how much Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan can accomplish. With one conservative priority after another sent to President Trump's desk — tax cuts, military spending increases, slashing the safety net, abortion restrictions — the civil war will be all but over.
And if Trump vetoes a bill here or there because he's looking to stay on the broader public's good side? Conservatives won't like it, and they'll grumble. But the same thing has happened under every Republican president. True-blue conservatives may not have liked it when Ronald Reagan raised taxes or when George W. Bush added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, but they didn't declare war on the president over it.
It's true that the current generation of Republican insurgents cares less about particular issues than they do about fighting power; for them, the battle is the point, not the policy goal. But it will be hard to gin up much support for something like shutting down the government when it's a Republican in the White House, even an inconsistent Republican like Trump.
That all assumes that Trump wins. But what if he loses?
In that case, everything for Republicans will reset to where it had been during the Obama years. They'll have a president they loathe with every fiber of their beings, and a congressional leadership that can never give the base what it really wants, which is to send that president packing. As for the election, conservatives will tell themselves that the reason they lost wasn't that their party in its wisdom nominated a hateful buffoon, but that Trump just wasn't conservative enough.
And it's important to keep in mind that for all their troubles in presidential races, the GOP is extraordinarily strong at the sub-presidential level right now. They control not only both houses of Congress, but a majority of governorships and state legislatures as well. They might lose the Senate this fall, but the chances of them losing the House are miniscule, and they'll still have enormous power in the states. Trump may make them look bad, and the association with him might lead a few down-ballot candidates to defeat, but the Republican Party will still be in a pretty good position come 2017.
And to be honest, a Hillary Clinton presidency would give them new energy, which could carry them to victory in 2018 and maybe even 2020, because nothing fires up a party like hatred of the president. So while it would be silly to argue that Donald Trump could actually be good for the GOP, he won't deal them a mortal blow either. They'll endure.