With Donald Trump its presumptive nominee after his win in the Indiana primary, the GOP will never be the same.
“I have to tell you, I’ve competed all my life,” Trump said, his golden face somber, his gravity-defying pouf of hair seeming to hover above his brow. “All my life I’ve been in different competitions—in sports, or in business, or now, for 10 months, in politics. I have met some of the most incredible competitors that I’ve ever competed against right here in the Republican Party.”
The combined might of the Republican Party’s best and brightest—16 of them at the outset—proved, in the end, helpless against Trump’s unorthodox, muscular appeal to the party’s voting base. With his sweeping, 16-point victory in Tuesday’s Indiana primary, and the surrender of his major remaining rival, Ted Cruz, Trump was pronounced the presumptive nominee by the chair of the Republican National Committee. The primary was over—but for the GOP, the reckoning was only beginning.
“We want to bring unity to the Republican Party,” Trump said. “We have to bring unity—it’s so much easier.” Politicians who had been “vicious” to him throughout the primary, he said, were now calling him asking to come on board.
But unity may not be so easily summoned. As Trump’s hostile takeover of the party drew to a close, many of its leaders, particularly members of the conservative intelligentsia, were in revolt. George Will had denounced “collaborationists” who sided with Trump, branding them “ineligible to participate in the party’s reconstruction.” David Brooks had proclaimed “a Joe McCarthy moment,” adding, “People will be judged by where they stood at this time.” They had stood athwart Trump’s nomination, yelling, “Stop!”—but the Republican voters had ignored them, and now they feared their party was lost.
Could it ever be regained? Many partisans surely would rally around the nominee like they always did, not seeing what was supposedly so world-historically terrible about Trump, or seeing his opponent as a greater evil. But to the anti-Trump faction, the GOP they cherished for decades as a vehicle for right-of-center ideas seemed to be no more. It was likely too late for a third-party candidate to swoop into the breach. With Trump’s nomination, the old party establishment went into exile, perhaps never to return. On Twitter, conservative operatives, writers, policy wonks and talk-show hosts gravely lined up to turn in their Republican registrations. “I am a fiscal conservative and I am a social conservative,” declared blogger Ben Howe. “That will not change. But I will not vote for an egomaniacal authoritarian.” The New York Daily News’s cover showed a red, white, and blue elephant in a casket.
After Trump exited, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” came on the speakers—a fitting message from the newly minted Republican nominee to his party’s old elites. It was followed by the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma,” whose soaring final verse—the one where Pavarotti hits the dramatic high A—translates thus:
Vanish, o night!
Fade, you stars!
Fade, you stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win!
The final days of the Cruz campaign—and, by extension, the desperate effort to save the party from Trump—were a desperate and humiliating spectacle.
“We are staring down into the abyss,” Cruz, the conservative senator from Texas, told a crowd in a cavernous, partially filled convention-center hall in Fort Wayne on Monday. “The entire country is depending on the state of Indiana to pull us back from this cliff.” As he spoke, a child began to wail in the back of the room.
Cruz had resorted, in the campaign’s final days, to a series of increasingly desperate gambits. He formed an alliance with the other remaining candidate in the race, John Kasich, agreeing that Kasich would stay out of Indiana while Cruz would stay out of later primaries in New Mexico and Oregon. But the partnership was widely derided, Trump branded it “collusion,” and the candidates themselves couldn’t seem to agree on its terms.
Cruz announced as his hypothetical running mate a former competitor, Carly Fiorina. Campaigning with him in Indiana, Fiorina fell off the stage. He secured a halfhearted endorsement from the state’s Republican governor, Mike Pence, who seemed not to relish his options; he found himself pressed into service nonetheless, traveling the state with Cruz in the final days and even recording a television ad: in for a Pence, in for a pound. At campaign stops, Cruz was taunted by Trump supporters: “Indiana doesn’t want you!” one shouted. Trump, Cruz told the man plaintively, “is playing you for a chump.”
Conceding the race on Tuesday, Cruz didn’t mention Trump, and he seemed to be wrestling with his party’s future. He called his listeners back to Ronald Reagan’s speech at the 1976 convention in Kansas City—a contested convention Reagan lost—noting that Reagan had looked ahead not to the short term, but to “the next 100 years.” There was something bigger to fight for, he seemed to be saying, than the six months leading up to November. Would the party of Reagan rise to meet America’s challenges, he asked? “Or will we succumb to the tyranny of political correctness and the temptation of racial politics and balkanization here at home?”
But the party was broken before Trump came along, and Cruz helped to break it. In 2012, having never held elected office, he won a Texas Republican primary by branding his opponent (whose record and positions were quite conservative) a weak-willed member of the evil establishment. Arriving in Washington along with other establishment-toppling members of the Tea Party, Cruz followed through on his promises, leading the charge to shut down the government. The gambit led to a major backlash against the GOP, but it made Cruz a hero to his base. A local pastor who introduced him in Fort Wayne compared him to “the man in the picture with the tanks in Tiananmen Square”: “He would not compromise! He stopped the government!”
This obstinacy and opposition to traditional institutions was calculated to be Cruz’s calling card in the presidential primary. But he ran up against an opponent even more reckless in his approach, with none of the grounding in constitutional principle. “Ted Cruz helped create an environment where populist demagoguery would flourish on the right. Of course, he, no doubt, assumed he would be the beneficiary of this,” the conservative commentator Matt Lewis wrote. In the end, he added, “the revolution had turned on Ted Cruz, too.” And Trump, sensing the party’s weakness, steered into the breach.
A funny thing has happened to the Tea Party’s brand of anti-incumbent fervor in the age of Trump. In down-ballot primaries, antiestablishment conservatives have largely flopped. In Indiana on Tuesday, Representative Marlin Stutzman, a stalwart member of the Freedom Caucus that helped oust former Speaker John Boehner, was routed in the Senate primary by a fellow congressman supported by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In primaries in Alabama and elsewhere, incumbent and establishment candidates have similarly had an easy ride against their challengers. It is as if Trump had provided an outlet for all the primary electorate’s rage, leaving their local representatives unscathed.
Cruz’s failure and Trump’s success have cast the Republican insurgencies of yesteryear in a new light. Was ousting Dick Lugar and his fellow longtime incumbents ever really about the strict conservative agenda of Washington groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth? Or was it, for the voters who carried it out, about a deeper, more primal, more identitarian resentment, an indiscriminate rage against the machine? Cruz’s loss revealed that his brand of activist conservatism wasn’t really driving the past years’ rebellions of the GOP base. It is this realization that has made the rise of Trump so disturbing for the party intelligentsia.
The Cruz supporters I met in Fort Wayne were strongly ideologically conservative and mostly religious Christians. I found some former supporters of Ben Carson, the socially conservative surgeon, and one man who had liked Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, but no supporters of the establishment Republicans Cruz was trying to rally around him to stop Trump. There were no Kasich supporters moved to vote strategically, no former loyalists of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. Cruz, it was clear, had not managed to broaden his appeal. It was the establishment’s revenge on the man some regarded as “Lucifer in the flesh.”
With Cruz looking like a long shot, many of his supporters had fallen to prayer. “With God, all things are possible!” said Trish Twitty, the owner, with her husband Tim, of an auto-glass shop in Bluffton. But in the event Cruz didn’t make it, Trish and Tim had begun arguing over whether they’d vote for Trump in November.
Tim said he would, because of the balance of power on the Supreme Court. Trish didn’t think she could bring herself to do it after all the things she’d learned about Trump and heard him say. She recalled, for example, an article she’d read that said Trump used to keep a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bed. “Do I really want someone who values Hitler? No, I do not!” she said. Another attendee at the event told me if Trump was the nominee, he planned to write in Ted Cruz.
Now the question on the party’s mind is: Can Trump change?
A couple of weeks ago, he managed not to say anything bizarre for several days in a row, and even read from a sheet of notes at a few of his rallies. His ragtag, disorganized campaign, of which he has always been the undisputed chief strategist, finally hired a real-deal consultant. He gave a well-mannered victory speech that referred to “Senator Cruz” instead of his habitual “Lyin’ Ted.”
Pundits rushed to declare the New Trump, domesticated, presidential of mien, and bound to craft a new, cleaned-up image for the general election. But the makeover didn’t stick. “Lyin’ Ted” was back, the day after “Senator Cruz.” The Trump you find onstage at his rallies bears much resemblance to the Trump of six months ago: In South Bend on Monday, his speech featured extended complaining about the “dishonest” press and the “rigged” nomination process, riffs about illegal immigration and Chinese trade, and conspiracy-mongering. President Obama, he said, did not know what he was doing when it came to fighting Islamic terrorism—“or maybe,” Trump added darkly, “he does know what he’s doing.”
Trump often tells interviewers he plans to act more presidential, to which the Fox News host Chris Wallace once dryly retorted, “When are you going to start?” I asked Barry Bennett, formerly Carson’s campaign manager and now a senior adviser to Trump, whether a personality transplant was in the offing. He said the change was already occurring: “Choose a rally speech from 90 days ago and then watch the ones this week, you’ll see some big changes,” he said.
“The rhetoric is much more effective,” Bennett said. “He now talks about the movement, not him. He talks about a lot of things that are much more appealing to the electorate.” Trump’s approval rating among Republicans, he noted, is now positive by a 20-point margin, a sharp reversal from a couple of months ago, and a recent general-election poll had him narrowly beating Clinton.
“I love the way this election stacks up,” Bennett said. “Hillary Clinton, a 30-year incumbent who’s been fighting all her life but not really accomplishing anything, versus Donald Trump, who wants to bulldoze Washington? I’ll take Trump.”
This is the contrarian’s case against the pundits’ consensus, and for Trump winning: that his idiosyncratic platform and anti-establishment fervor will disrupt the partisan stalemate and reorder the traditional fault lines of American politics. Some of his supporters see him as a new kind of Republican reformer, one whose lack of loyalty to the party frees him to adopt more popular positions that can attract nontraditional GOP voters.
“This is 2016. Republicans are a dying breed because the demographics have changed,” a 52-year-old Trump supporter in South Bend, Radomir Ivanovich, told me. Ivanovich has been unemployed for two years after losing his job in real-estate financing, a turn of events he blamed on financial regulation. “We’ve got to attract different people who wouldn’t generally come to the Republican Party. There’s not enough of us.” Trump, he believed, was the one to do that because of his economic message.
The shock keeps wearing off, and Trump keeps ratcheting it up. The rhetoric on both sides has had to become coarser and more shocking to keep up with the candidate. Outside the venue, vendors were selling shirts reading “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica!” on the front and “Trump that bitch!” on the back. Some were offering pins with nasty descriptions of Clinton’s body parts.
On the other side of the street, separated by a row of police in riot gear, a large contingent of protestors played bongos, chanted, waved Mexican flags, and brandished signs. “Trump is a fascist.” “Make America Hate Again.” “Arrogance ≠ Competence.” But many of them simply said “Fuck Trump.”
And so we slouch toward November, the GOP in shambles, the system ripe for some kind of overthrow. We are headed into uncharted territory, led by Trump.