Published March 2, 2016
The results from Super Tuesday seem to have left the Republican race in roughly the same sorry state it was in on Monday. Trump proved to be a little weaker than expected, but only a little, falling short of a delegate count to match his first-place finishes. Cruz proved a little stronger than expected, meanwhile, but only a little, and it’s still not easy to see a path for him in the states to come. Rubio continues to argue from asserted potential more than proven results, and Kasich continues to merely clear the way for Trump even though Trump is probably the very last choice of most Kasich voters.
From every angle, the Republican race looks like an epic tragedy of blinding hubris. If any one of these men who would be president had a more properly proportional understanding of his own prospects and limits, the coming calamity would be averted. But as none of them does, that calamity keeps coming.
The prospect of a Trump–Clinton matchup therefore remains very real. That at this moment, with the country struggling to come to terms with its 21st-century circumstances, the two parties would reach for two 70-year-olds to save them from the future — both of them intensely unpopular, reckless with power, blinded by nostalgia, and devoid of vision — is awfully discouraging. And it leaves me wondering if the baby boomers, as voters and leaders, will ever stop wrecking the country.
It’s unfortunate that the vital effort to push back against Donald Trump has only really started picking up steam over the last couple of weeks. It might well turn out to be too late to stop Trump from scamming Republican voters into putting his name at the top of their party’s ticket. But late certainly is much better than never, and there is something very heartening about the efforts that have finally kicked up, and about the people engaged in them.
The person who has come closest to my own views is Senator Ben Sasse, who laid out his case, here for instance, in terms I generally very much agree with (and I’ve offered up some similar arguments myself in NR and elsewhere, as have many others).
Where I disagree with him a little is in his dismissive attitude toward political parties, and so his apparent willingness to put aside the Republican party, and not just Trump, if Trump is its nominee. I agree that parties are in important respects just vehicles for a vision of society (and often also for various lesser interests). They are, as he says, “tools.” But parties are also important social institutions in themselves, with a history and character and spirit that are often worth defending, and that are frequently inseparable from the vision of society the party works to advance. And more important, parties are more than the instruments or extensions of presidential candidates or presidents — just as our system of government is more than a powerful national executive surrounded by some tiny Lilliputians pecking at his toes. So for me, one important reason to oppose Trump is the danger he poses to the Republican party as a conservative party and as a durable institution.
A presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would be an election without a conservative candidate, in which most of the core questions that have defined American politics in the modern era, including especially the question of the role of government in the life of our society, were not even contested. It would also be an election between two people who, quite apart from their political views, have shown themselves unfit to be entrusted with the grave responsibilities of the presidency. Such an election would do the country a very great disservice.
That’s why Republicans should choose a worthy and conservative nominee, rather than Donald Trump — which they certainly still could, and which I still hope they will. It’s also why, if Republicans do choose Trump, I would hope that a serious conservative alternative emerges and makes it onto the ballot around the country. I would never vote for Trump or Clinton, and I do wish there were someone I could vote for in good conscience.
But beneath the presidential line on the ballot, there will be thousands of Republicans running for office around the country, many of whom are indeed conservatives, and it would be a mistake to let the party’s failure to choose a serious candidate for president undermine their prospects, or to abandon them because we can’t support the guy at the top of the ticket.
The conservative anti-Trump campaign, however much of the conservative movement it ends up uniting, should therefore be as much a campaign to save and revive the Republican party as a serious conservative party as an effort to offer an alternative presidential candidate for conservatives. Obviously there is no simple way to do these things simultaneously. If Trump wins the Republican nomination, there will be no good options for conservatives. But in contemplating the bad options we would have, we should look for ways to buttress the Republican party, which is on the whole a conservative party and in our system of federalism and of divided powers is also in most respects the country’s governing party today, and which would be at least as much a victim as an instrument of Trump’s success. It is a mistake to think that if he were to win the nomination then Trump would “take over” the Republican party.
Republicans, wherever they end up coming down regarding Trump if he is nominated, should not want such a takeover to happen. And those conservatives who are committed to opposing Trump should work to create some space for Republicans to oppose him, or at least avoid supporting him, while remaining Republicans.
“If this becomes the party of Donald Trump and David Duke, a lot of us are out,” Senator Sasse has said. I certainly agree. So let’s not let it become that party.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.