What do conservatives stand to lose with a Trump nomination? Nearly everything.
There is an odd hush that is falling over the high place in America's conservative movement after the South Carolina primary.
The nomination fight is not quite over, but Donald Trump is positioned for a near-sweep of the upcoming contests. His two most viable challengers scored roughly evenly in the last primary. Gaming it out, it is easy to see how Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio continue to fire on each other, while Trump continues to win a strong plurality. The person who becomes "the anti-Trump" may emerge too late and too weakened to stop Trump in his hostile takeover bid of the Republican Party.
A Trump nomination, at first blush, looks like a disaster for the organs of the conservative movement, whether think tanks or magazines. The importance of these institutions in the national firmament is premised on the idea that the Republican nominee for president must come up to snuff as a "true conservative," or that reading them gives you some insight into the thinking and operation of the next Republican administration. A Trump win, at least temporarily, threatens the conservative movement because it threatens to expose how inessential its ideas are to holding together the party.
The great drama of the 2012 election was whether Mitt Romney could convince conservatives he was truly on their side. The great drama of 2016 is whether Trump needs any conservatives on his side at all. Perhaps he doesn't.
Trump, as a general election candidate, may try to reach out to some Republicans and reunite the coalition he shattered. Already there are reports that he sounds out Rudy Giuliani, Art Laffer, and Bill Bennett. Those men roughly represent the three "legs" of the stool that is the conservative movement: an assertive foreign policy, free-market economics, and social conservatism. He will reach out to others as well.
Will policy minds on the right be willing to work with him, though? Each policy wonk, or professional political class worker that a Trump campaign approaches faces a difficult choice: Do you throw in with Trump in the hopes of retaining some conservative influence over the Republican nominee? Or do you risk looking like someone who abandoned the GOP in an hour when it needed to unite to defeat Hillary Clinton? If you join Team Trump and he fails miserably, will your colleagues in the movement view you with suspicion?
If Trump captures the nomination, it will also be a disaster for the relationship of pro-lifers with the Republican Party. Unless Trump picks someone with the most rock-solid pro-life credentials as his running mate, it is very likely that a solid chunk of important pro-life activists will seek out a viable third party candidate, or throw their support behind the nominee of a tiny pro-life party, like the Constitution Party. In fact, there is good reason to believe that a Trump nomination may bring out a retired Republican congressman to run on the Constitution Party's ticket. Trump may say he is against abortion, but his conversion on the issue is far less convincing than those of previous nominees like Mitt Romney or George H.W. Bush.
The Republican Party has never exactly fought with everything it had to confirm enough originalists to overturn Roe V. Wade and thereby return lawmaking on abortion to the states. But in order to keep its coalition from really cracking up, it has to at least be a plausible vehicle for the aspirations of these voters. With Trump at the top, it won't be.
For Republican elites who may be pro-choice and for grassroots activists who believe they cannot support a party that wobbles on this issue, a Trump nomination shatters a mutual illusion: that the pro-life grassroots and the Republican elite need each other. In fact, absent major scrambling by a third party candidate, Trump's nomination all but guarantees that conservatives will be reduced to a tiny rump on a consolidated, progressive Supreme Court.
Even though I have wanted to see the GOP address the voters that Trump is courting with more substantial policies, I have serious doubts about whether the Republican coalition can so easily be re-assembled under Trump or after him. The one truly great thing about American political parties is that they are so big that their members must accommodate each other and moderate their demands and appetites. For too long, an elite financial wing of the Republican Party got immoderate about its demands, and the party caved to them. Trump is the understandable immoderate counter-reaction. Who or what can possibly reconcile these factions to one another?