As the likelihood that Donald Trump will lose the presidential election increases, Republicans are wondering about the party’s future direction -- both for the three months between now and Election Day and for the years ahead, when the focus may be on repairing the damage a divisive and inexperienced candidate has done to the party’s brand.
While the outcome of the election is still uncertain, dozens of senior figures in the Republican Party are so convinced that Trump is going to lose to Democrat Hillary Clinton that they are demanding that the Republican National Committee reallocate resources away from the Trump campaign and focus instead on protecting vulnerable down-ballot candidates.
The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens is among many who are arguing that the best hope for the future of the Republican Party is for Trump to lose and lose badly -- that way his supporters won’t be able to latch on to fantasies of election fraud or internal GOP disloyalty.
“[T]the only hope for a conservative restoration is a blowout Hillary Clinton victory, held in check by a Republican majority in Congress,” he writes. “If Mr. Trump loses the election narrowly, the stab-in-the-back thesis will have a patina of credibility that he might have won had it not been for the opposition of people like me. But a McGovern-style defeat makes that argument impossible to sustain except among the most cretinous.”
Assuming Trump does lose, the party would have to find a way to heal its internal divisions. Some are looking ahead to a post-Trump GOP, one in which the sins of the 2016 election will be identified and the heretics expelled.
“The Republican leaders who show up to the convention and climb aboard the Trump train will be purged from whatever comes after the GOP,” John Daniel Davidson wrote at The Federalist in July. “The ones left standing will be the ones who stayed away—or, like, Sen. Ted Cruz, showed up, but not to endorse Trump.”
But Fox News host and radio personality Sean Hannity seems to expect the purge to move in the other direction.
“If in 96 days Trump loses this election, I am pointing the finger directly at people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and John McCain,” Hannity said this week. “I have watched these
Republicans be more harsh toward Donald Trump than they’ve ever been in standing up to Barack Obama and his radical agenda.
“They did nothing, nothing — all these phony votes to repeal and replace Obamacare, show votes so they can go back and keep their power and get reelected,” Hannity continued.
He promised that the people who he sees as having been insufficiently supportive of Trump will be held “accountable” if the mogul loses.
Not everyone is howling for blood, though.
On Friday in The National Review, former Jeb Bush national security advisor John Noonan called for a peaceful reconstitution of the GOP after the smoke clears.
“Purges didn’t look good on the KGB, and they wouldn’t be a good look for the GOP (though I did laugh when political consultant Mike Murphy cheerily hoped for ‘at least a few show trials’). I don’t want to purge a soul from this stupid, silly, busted party of ours.”
He continued, “Republicans will need every able-bodied voter in the coming years. That means reconciliation, reunification, and resumption of offensive operations. And we’ll have our opportunities, starting in 2018, when 25 Senate Democrats will be vulnerable and running hard from the policies of the second Clinton administration.”
However, he said, it will also be a chance to shed the demands for ideological purity that have made real accomplishment -- and compromise -- nearly impossible.
“It means ignoring theatrics on the House and Senate floor, the flashy promises to defund Obama’s golf handicap and repeal the state of Vermont. You’d call for a football coach’s head if he threw a Hail Mary every down. There’s virtue in pounding the ball a few yards at a time.”
At The Weekly Standard, Jay Cost takes heart at the prospect that Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO whose run for the GOP nomination never really took off, might put her name forward to succeed Reince Priebus as the chair of the Republican National Committee.
“Fiorina would be perfect for this job. As the former CEO of HP, she knows how organizations are supposed to perform, and as a former GOP presidential candidate, she surely knows that the RNC is not performing well at all.”
Of course, most of these post-Trump scenarios make one giant assumption: that in defeat Donald Trump will slip silently out a back door, leaving the remains of the party establishment to clean up the mess he’s left behind.
However, it’s not clear that going quietly is really Trump’s style. Whatever happens after the election, there’s a very real chance that Trump, with a smaller but still committed core of followers, might still hang around, casting blame and throwing fits, which would make rebuilding the GOP an immensely more complicated challenge.