When Donald Trump became the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, he successfully reversed the ruling order of the Republican Party. Those who were last are now first. And for the first time in decades, someone had united the non-conservative factions of the Republican Party.
Is it any wonder Republicans seem disoriented?
The conservative movement, whose ideas long dominated the Republican Party, had its natural base in the anti-New Deal middle West and the individualist far West. Theirs was a synthesis of Robert Taft's conservatism and Barry Goldwater's austere individualism. Eventually, this movement assimilated to itself the churched evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons of the Moral Majority, along with hawkish neoconservative intellectuals. Naturally, this coalition was on the side of business owners ("You didn't build that"), free trade, and unrestricted immigration. It was hawkish and moralizing, and its intellectuals had a preoccupation with sound doctrine. They talked about capital-P Principles. These were the conservatives who came to dominate the party after the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions.
But now, at the moment of that coalition's strenuous exhaustion, Donald Trump has built a new coalition that draws from everyone else in the Republican fold. And he won.
Trump drew in the secular and moderate Northeast Republicans who had been sidelined by the conservatives. He combined those with the populist, nationalist South, particularly unchurched evangelicals. He threw in the downwardly mobile parts of Appalachia as well. The Trump coalition is a mix of Chris Christie and Jeff Sessions, with a dash of coal country thrown in.
This coalition is protectionist and talks about "jobs," not entrepreneurs. It is skeptical of wars, but willing to be merciless when necessary. Its would-be edgy intellectuals are particularists who care more about style than doctrine. They talk about forces. This coalition combines and amplifies traditional Mugwump and Dixie objections to mass immigration.
That Trump accomplished this is astonishing. Trump lacks principle, knowledge, and political judgment. (Just imagine the face he would make if someone explained to him that he was reviving the Mugwump tradition in Republican politics.) On issues where he has little knowledge or experience, he has an unusual ability to run ahead of public opinion. For the die-hard Trump supporters, Trump's march to victory over more conventional Republicans has boosted their morale. Trump rallies are weird carnivals. Their lead performer is loose.
Trump is now asking traditional conservatives to get on board and be as obedient to their new leaders as the followers were to them. You could say they are falling in line. Even the candidates who attacked him most vociferously, Marco Rubio and Rick Perry, seem to be signing up for a ride on the Trump Train. But many conservative stalwarts are making this transition with deliberate slowness. It is as if they want observers to view them less as accomplices than as hostages. Good luck with that.
Paul Ryan was "just not ready" to endorse Trump earlier this month, but seems to be trending in that direction. Trump called Lindsey Graham last week and seems to have gotten Graham to at least be a little quieter. The GOP's fundraising apparatus is kicking into low gear and looks like it is going to stay that way. If Trump's ideological makeover of the Republican Party somehow makes the party more competitive against Democrats, the Ryans and Grahams and an entire class of conservative intellectuals and party technicians are in for a rude awakening in November.
Losing command of the party is a difficult thing to accept. And I doubt the conservative movement will accept it in time for this election. Conservatives expect Trump to lose.
My own inclination is to step aside and let Trump's campaign burn itself into cinders by November. But I also believe Hillary Clinton is fully capable of self-destructing. If Trump wins without conservatives, they may never seem useful to the party again. And if he loses, the conservative leaders who joined him may never be trusted by the many conservative institutions and donor class in the same way.