If the Republican Party’s big shots could give one voting instruction to Iowa’s electors, it would be “don’t vote for either of the two candidates leading the polls.” On election day, the Grand Old Party is in a full-blown crisis. One year ago, as with all primaries,* it had envisioned a well-organized outcome: Jeb Bush, proud of his name, his network and his experience, would win the nomination hands down. But of course, Republican voters are fed up with establishment men who promise the earth and end up not doing much for them once elected. This year, the voters have set their hearts on anti-establishment candidates campaigning for radical change: Donald Trump, the New York real-estate developer who promises to build a border wall and send all the Mexicans back home; and Sen. Ted Cruz, an unbending ideologist who has managed to unite the Senate against him thanks to his extremist views, and who would rather burn the Capitol than accept political compromise.
The party is paying heavily for its past mistakes. “The Republican Party created Donald Trump, because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them,” Erick Erickson, a right-wing blogger, believes. He sold them “a small government utopia, politically impractical because it would have required wrenching changes that most Americans wouldn’t want. He has denounced decades of change, promising the equivalent of a return to the government and the economy of the 1890s, to a cultural standard of the '50s and a racial composition of the '40s,”** writes E. J. Dionne, author of a new book, “Why the Right Went Wrong.”
In the last few years, after the electoral victories in Congress, the party has promised above all else to bring Barack Obama to his knees and to undo all his reforms, before — once more — conceding to reality and accepting compromises. This has exasperated its base and led to even greater radicalization. The number of Republicans who consider themselves “very conservative” almost doubled between 1995 and 2015, from 19 to 33 percent.
A Scattered Offensive Against Trump
The GOP now finds itself torn between various hostile factions. Up until now, this has prevented it from uniting for the primaries behind a more “acceptable” candidate who could have opposed Donald Trump. It hasn’t even been able to launch a negative campaign to attack his weaknesses. Exasperated by this inertia, some figures have begun speaking out in the last few weeks. The magazine National Review published 22 essays by conservatives who would oppose Donald Trump’s candidacy if he wins the primaries. “Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of … populism … .”
At the same time, several groups have launched a modest attack over the airwaves. One TV commercial accuses him of exaggerating his wealth, reminding viewers that he has filed for bankruptcy several times, that he has employed many immigrants and that he declared during a debate that American salaries were too high to create jobs. “This is Trump’s real record: fighting for his interests, not for ours,” the commercial concludes.** Ted Cruz has launched another, telling how Trump had the courts seize a woman’s property because he wanted to build a garage for his casino — which shows his merciless methods.
A More Malleable Candidate
But more and more bigwigs within the party, such as Bob Dole, a former presidential candidate, or the governor of Iowa, seem to be resigned to siding with the real-estate magnate. Eight months ago, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “If Donald Trump becomes the voice of conservatives, conservatism will implode along with him.” But it recently changed tack: “Mr. Trump is a better politician than we ever imagined, and he is becoming a better candidate.” In fact, behind all this hides a simple political calculation. The establishment believes that Trump is more malleable than Cruz and that he will be able to be controlled. A risky gamble, since the New York developer is unpredictable and no one knows what policies he will really apply if he is elected. He has promised to reintroduce protectionist measures and not to make deep cuts to public health insurance [the Affordable Care Act], and he hasn’t mentioned reducing expenditures … which all goes against conservative values.
Whatever the election result, the party has found itself submerged in a deep identity crisis. Indeed, even if Trump loses the primary,* his inflammatory rhetoric is causing major problems, amplifying the Republicans’ racist image at a time when the party more than ever needs support from Latinos to win the White House. Many see the party going so far as to implode. Others, who are more optimistic, believe that this situation will lead it toward an advantageous introspection and reorganization. In 1964, the strongly conservative Barry Goldwater won the primaries before being trounced by Lyndon Johnson at the election. This forced the extremists to return to the ranks and allowed the leaders to retake control and appoint Richard Nixon in 1968. While we wait, Bill Kristol, founder of The Weekly Standard, has asked his fans on Twitter to help the party find the “name of the new party we’ll have to start if Trump wins the GOP nomination.”
*Editor’s Note: Iowa is a caucus state, although the original article specified “primaries” and “primary” when referring to the state’s system for electing a party’s presidential candidate.
**Editor’s Note: The original quote, although accurately translated, could not be verified.