Opinion

Why the GOP should fear a moderate Donald Trump

Trump is clearly going to run to Hillary's left in November. What a mess...

Donald Trump is clearly going to be the Republican nominee for president.

He just crushed Ted Cruz in Indiana, causing the Texas senator to drop out of the race. Trump now has more than 1,000 pledged delegates. More than 10 million Americans have voted for him. There's no one left to stop him.

Trump is going to be the nominee. Accept it.

To their credit, many on the right have accepted this. And their backs against the wall, GOP establishmentarians and movement conservatives have coalesced around the cold but real comfort that Trump will win the nomination, but he'll get crushed in November by Hillary Clinton, and that will clear the ideological air, relegating his fanatics back to the swamp or the basement and giving the party's best talents room to recover, reassume power, and reform their message in a way that wins. It's surely reassuring to see such a snapback as a solid upside to the traumatic ordeal of Trumpism.

But there's just no reason to believe the GOP's post-Trump future is likely to play out that way.

Consider Trump's foreign policy speech last week, which left many people shaken. Trump didn't just offer an ideologically pure form of right-wing populism writ large. Instead, he put forth what The Washington Post editorial board called incoherent, inconsistent, and incomprehensible policies. While Trump vowed to terminate our "horrible cycle of hostility" with Russia, for instance, he bashed President Obama because he "bows to our enemies." He said we're too broke to prop up our allies, yet promised to spend big on our military. It made no sense, and he surely didn't sound like a conservative — either of the hawkish or isolationist variety.

Trump's speech alone was more than enough to rattle any right-leaning expert on international relations. But it was extra scary because it was of a piece with his broader scrambling of ideological lines. Everyone from Tim Dickinson, at Rolling Stone's National Affairs desk, to Jennifer Rubin, the Post's stalwart neoconservative, now recognizes that Trump can — and likely will — run to Hillary Clinton's left on more than global issues. He revealed to Fortune magazine that he's actually a deficit dove, willing to spend lots of low-interest dollars to "rebuild the infrastructure of this country."

Trump is no neoliberal in the '90s Clintonian mold; "unencumbered by any ballast of convictions," George Will recently suggested, he "would court Bernie Sanders' disaffected voters with promises to enrich rather than reform the welfare state's entitlement menu — Trump already says, "I am going to take care of everybody" — and to make America great again by having it cower behind trade barriers."

But Trump, of course, is no white-shoe Sanders. He's simply a man who recognizes, at a gut level, that many Republican voters have largely given up much hope for liberty and prosperity, doubling all their emotional capital down on security. Hillary Clinton is the queen of the pro-super-rich left, but she's also the undisputed master of American political conventionalism. That gives Trump a lot of room, and when he sees an opening, he takes it.

For Republicans preparing for life after Trump, this is the rub: Instead of supplying a crisper ideological picture of what works and what doesn't, this sort of a Trump loss to Clinton — in which he runs as a tough-talking centrist if not an outright liberal hawk — would lay bare just how coreless the established party has become. Republicans have long understood that excommunicating reactionaries like the John Birchers allows them to close ranks and market themselves as the respectable right. That's why they've hoped that Trump will play to type. But if he shifts in the general election to run as more of a radical strongman than a reactionary one, he'll leave Republicans picking up the pieces to wonder just who's in the market for a respectable right anymore.

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