Trump’s unraveling Republican Party: How we reached this point

Leading Republicans say the party of Abraham Lincoln is facing disruption because in the past few decades it has lost its commitment to 'unifying ideals,' such as freedom and human dignity.

Eric Thayer/Reuters
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a Purple Heart given to him by a veteran during a campaign event at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Va., on Aug. 2, 2016. Mr. Trump's denigration of a Muslim immigrant couple's loss of their son, Humayun Khan – who died fighting for the American military in Iraq – has triggered a backlash from some prominent Republicans.

A report that the Republican National Committee is preparing for the possibility that Donald Trump might drop out of the presidential race has set the political world alight.

There’s no evidence that Mr. Trump, in fact, is on the verge of dropping out. But there are reports of deep discord within his campaign, and signs of an unraveling of the party’s fragile unity that had lasted through the GOP convention in Cleveland until now. The moment is so fraught with discord that major Republicans increasingly are giving up on the party altogether.

Trump's most controversial move was his repeated denigration of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the immigrant parents of a fallen Muslim-American soldier, after Mr. Khan spoke out against Trump at the Democratic National Convention last week. But it's also an accumulation of brash moves – a daily unwillingness both to show the kind of restraint expected of a presidential candidate and to behave as a loyal Republican.

How has the Grand Old Party, founded in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, come to this point? It may not be all Trump's fault, though he personifies the problem. Leading Republicans say the party of Abraham Lincoln is facing disruption because in the past few decades it has lost its commitment to "unifying ideals," such as freedom and human dignity.

In recent days, a Republican member of Congress, Richard Hanna of New York, and a well-known business executive and Republican fundraiser, Meg Whitman, announced their support for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Congressman Hanna is the first sitting member to endorse Mrs. Clinton.

Other stalwarts of the Republican establishment are beginning to write off their beloved party.

“I don’t think the Republican Party and the conservative movement are capable of reforming themselves in an incremental and gradual way,” Republican intellectual Avik Roy told Vox last week. “There’s going to be a disruption.”

Mr. Roy, a health-care expert and past presidential campaign adviser, said he believed the GOP had lost its moral authority to govern, because it was no longer committed to equality for all Americans.

And that was before Trump’s latest uproar.

A possible intervention

Trump’s decision to spend days verbally attacking the Khans may wind up being the biggest blow of all to his tenuous relationship with the GOP.

Trump exacerbated his schism with the party Tuesday when he refused to endorse Ryan and another senior Republican running for reelection, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. In another unusual move, Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, announced Wednesday that he is endorsing Speaker Ryan.

"I strongly support Paul Ryan, strongly endorse his reelection," Governor Pence said emphatically Wednesday on Fox News.

Both Ryan and McCain had endorsed Trump, despite their clear discomfort with his candidacy over both his bombastic style and positions that don’t square with party orthodoxy.

But the Republican Party is a club, and the rules are the rules, unwritten though they are. When the party appears headed toward selecting a nominee, the party closes ranks around that person, for better or worse.

With Trump, there’s been a whole lot more “worse” than “better” lately.

It has reached the point where allies of Trump – RNC chairman Reince Priebus, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani – are reportedly plotting an intervention with the candidate to get him to “reset” his campaign.

But few have serious hope that Trump is really willing to change his ways. Trump has said that he knows how to be “presidential” – but chooses not to. His current shtick has taken him far, he says, so why change? He’ll be presidential after he defeats Clinton, he adds.

In other words, this Trump – the unpredictable, populist, mesmerizing, profane Trump – is the nominee, and the one the party will ride all the way to November. Or maybe not.

Word on Wednesday morning that RNC officials were contemplating the possibility that Trump might quit – leaving it up to the 168-member RNC to find a replacement – seemed to send public discourse into the realm of political science fiction.

But really, the idea that Trump may not last three more months as the GOP nominee seemed to reflect more the confusion and frustration of party leaders over Trump’s behavior than any real prospect that the hyper-competitive Trump might actually drop out.

How the GOP got here

The GOP arrived at this point, in part, by happenstance.

When 17 candidates ran for the Republican nomination, there was nothing the party leadership could do to winnow the field, and anoint an “establishment” favorite who could take on the outsiders – not only Trump but also Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The “invisible primary” – in which fundraising, debates, endorsements, and poll numbers present an early picture of candidate strength – left the field large right up until the first caucus.

Trump’s distinct style and populist message broke through the clutter of the large field, and sent him to the top of the heap.

But a large field in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily lead to the potential demise of the Republican Party. It is Trump himself who is taking the GOP to the point of no return, some say. In the view of Avik Roy, it is the party’s dark racial past that has been its own undoing – a past that Trump has played to in courting white working-class voters.

Roy traces the problem back to 1964, when the party nominated Barry Goldwater for president – the original “movement” conservative. He calls Senator Goldwater’s nomination a “historical disaster,” because “for the ensuing decades, it identified Democrats as the party of civil rights and Republicans as the party opposed to civil rights.”

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, tells the same story in a different way. He writes of visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis on the same day that Trump was attacking the Khans. Mr. Gerson sees in that attack a repudiation of what Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, and the Rev. Martin Luther King stood for.

“Those who support Trump are setting the Republican Party at odds with the American story told by Lincoln and King: a nationalism defined by striving toward unifying ideals of freedom and human dignity,” Mr. Gerson writes.

Gerson suggests that Republican leaders repudiate Trump.

At this point, that’s unlikely to happen. Most Republicans say they’d rather stick with the nominee they have, no matter how flawed, than blow up the party before Election Day by abandoning him. But if Trump loses, a period of time in the wilderness may be beneficial to the party, they add.

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