Is Donald Trump's candidacy just the beginning of a Republican civil war?
Many observers think so. John Noonan noticed the armies gathering on the horizon, waiting to take vengeance on each other for what is shaping up to be an electoral disaster in November:
Already there's talk of a post-November political genocide, a messily elimination of this faction or that faction from the Republican Party. There will be purges. The mass graves are being dug. And some are eagerly anticipating that sweet "I told you so" on November 9. Count me out. [National Review]
The fight is going to be tough to avoid. The urge to purge is ever present after elections. Political recriminations are actually quite a bit of fun, a way of focusing self-pity outward as righteous fury against the parts of your clan you've been pretending to put up with for so long. In 2006, I described the almost kick-reflex among the various factions of the Republican Party: "If the GOP we're more like me, the party would be doing better. It's failing, because it is like you." My journalist friends flattered me by calling this law of post-election commentary the Dougherty Doctrine.
Because Trump is set to lose this race badly and because his policy positions and singularly uncivil personality present a variety of reasons to refuse him support, Trump's loss will provide just about every faction in the Republican Party a chance to kick every other faction in the face. Establishment Republicans, who hated the Tea Party in 2010, will blame it for introducing "take our country back" rhetoric into the mainstream of the party and making a Republican's sole measure of merit into a simple barometer of how much the media hates him. Tea partiers will point out that Donald Trump won a lot of moderate and non-ideological conservatives, and that he, like the establishment, never really spoke about the Constitution.
Hawks and neoconservatives will use Trump's loss to further beat up on the libertarians and paleo-conservatives who preached an "America First" foreign policy and a rebalancing of America's commitments abroad. Religious conservatives will turn their fire on libertarians, saying that Trump's Playboy personality and foul, performative candidacy are part of the libertine culture they want to create, one that cost the party many of its voters in the Catholic Midwest and Mormon Mountain West. Anti-Trump paleo-conservatives will point out that George Bush and his ideological cheer squad already weakened the party a decade ago such that it could be taken over by a con man.
Republicans are pre-disposed to purge. Democrats are used to being a coalition party that caters to interest groups that are divided by race, class, and region. Since the Cold War, Democratic infighting tends to take the form of demonstrations of strength between its constituent parts. This helps the party rank its priorities. The GOP, however, is practically controlled by the conservative movement and so its disagreements tend to be less about setting priorities than about the party's philosophy itself. Republican infighting tends to be more like a campaign of persecuting heretics.
The urge to remove certain people from your movement is not without its merits. Nuts can add savor to a dish, sure. But they can also repel. Moderates voters and moderate members of Congress are generally allergic to nuts. Yet they are the key ingredient to building a majority party.
But if the party really wants to rebuild, it should start by subtracting orthodoxies. If Republicans are wiped out in the Senate or even in the House, they will have an opportunity to pursue a strategy that Democrats used in 2006: Run candidates that are specifically tailored to their region. In that year, Democrats ran a protectionist, Sherrod Brown, in Ohio. They ran conservative Democrats like Jim Webb for Virginia's Senate seat and Heath Shuler in North Carolina.
Republicans should make the leap. If it means electing protectionists in the deindustrialized mid-West and coal country, so be it. If it means electing a more secular-flavor of Republican in the Northeast, so be it. It often works out better for some of the GOP's factions when they aren't totally in charge. Pro-lifers benefited when pro-choice Republicans voted to confirm Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Gun law liberalizers benefitted from the same dynamic.
The alternative, a war of all against all, is too destructive to contemplate.