How Badly Will Trump Damage the Republican Party?

It could make Goldwater look like a hiccup.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump  in New York on May 3, 2016, following the primary in Indiana.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Several weeks ago, the Republican Party seemed on the verge of splintering into pro- and anti-Trump factions. A contested convention loomed in Cleveland, and a third-party challenge seemed plausible. Times have changed. Trump not only dispatched his remaining rivals with ease, but also consolidated a giant chunk of the party around his candidacy with remarkable speed. How did it happen?

To analyze the Trump takeover, and the future of the Republican Party regardless of what happens in November, I spoke by phone with Geoffrey Kabaservice, an expert on the GOP and the author of Rule And Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. We discussed the differences between Trump and Barry Goldwater, how racial appeals work on the electorate, and whether the GOP establishment wants Trump to lose. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Isaac Chotiner: Have you been surprised by how quickly much of the Republican establishment lined up behind Trump?

Geoffrey Kabaservice: Not really, to be honest. There used to be an old saying that when it came to the party nominee, “Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line.” Things haven’t changed as much as people think they have. I think the Republican leadership understands that division is very bad for the party. They have enough to contend with, without third-party efforts and contested conventions and things of that sort.

Will it only be a matter of time before Paul Ryan endorses?

I think he will eventually endorse.

How has Trump’s takeover of the party changed the way you think about the GOP, assuming you did not predict this, because nobody did?

Yeah, I certainly was not Nostradamus. On the other hand, there are some parallels to the party’s history. The parallel a lot of people have been mentioning is Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater’s seizure of the nomination was as unexpected back in those days as Trump’s was this year. Part of the reason is that Goldwater’s conservatism was not seen as the dominant strain in the party. It frankly had seemed to be an isolated or perhaps even marginal aspect of Republicanism.

I think you are right that Trump is as ideologically surprising as Goldwater, but he seems more surprising in terms of personality and background. Goldwater was a senator; Trump’s personality seems more shocking.

Yes and no. Think back to 1964.

I can’t think back that far, but go on.

Yes, of course, well, neither of us can. Just as Goldwater was poised to win the nomination after he defeated Nelson Rockefeller in the California primary, he voted against the Civil Rights Act. In so doing, he really took away the glory the party deserved for supporting the act. Republicans had voted for it in greater numbers than Democrats had. [Editor’s note: Because of their congressional majority, more Democrats than Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act, but a higher percentage of Republicans did so.]* Goldwater, having done that, given that he was the party’s presumptive nominee, really threatened to change the identity of the party. And that was in some ways how it played out. Although Eisenhower had received something like 40 percent of the black vote in 1956, and even Richard Nixon had received a third in 1960, with Goldwater it plummeted to 4 to 6 percent and has never really come back. That is why you had William Scranton launching a challenge to Goldwater’s candidacy in June. Almost everyone around the campaign knew it wouldn’t succeed, but they felt it was important to reassert the identity of the party and to show the world that Goldwater’s racial views did not characterize the party.

There has been some of that pushback against Trump, because his unfavorable ratings in the Hispanic community and elsewhere threaten the party and might tarnish its brand among minorities.

But Trump also has this crazy personality, aside from the racial craziness.

Yeah, although Goldwater was bad on television, for example, where Trump may be a new master of the medium. And Trump defeated all 16 of his rivals with some new jujitsu which they had never encountered—by being insulting and using over-the-top statements and hyperbole. It may be the future of campaigning. I hope not, but it could be. So in that sense he is a pioneer, a one-of-a-kind.

I also think people underestimated the degree to which Trump’s nationalism and populism really did resound with a lot of people. And I think the leadership was revealed as out of touch, both people who try to win elections and the people who guard the tablets that determine what the party stands for. Trump has really revealed that many of the dogmas of the Republican Party have become outdated.

It seems like no one has been able to break from that dogma until Trump. Do you think the racial appeals are what allowed him to do so?

I think Trump’s racial appeals are part of who he is and help to explain his success. But I hear a lot of liberal commentators saying that it is the entire secret, and I don’t think that’s true either. I think a lot of the party’s white, less-educated segments have supported Trump because of that white, ethno-nationalist appeal that he has. But some of his message doesn’t have a racial component. Trump has been very consistent since the 1980s in his opposition to trade. And a lot of people feel hard-hit by trade. He is the only person breaking that orthodoxy.

Right, but could another candidate have broken that orthodoxy without those racial appeals?

I have my doubts. I think if it weren’t for the fact that Trump was a volatile, populist character, more of the candidates would have called him out on these issues, where it seems like a lot of these candidates were afraid of him, or didn’t want to engage with him. The other thing is that if you talk about his ideological makeup, he is simply not that conservative, but in the most important, populist sense, he is actually quite radical, just not along the normal liberal-conservative line.

You have written a lot about the death of moderate Republicanism. What does he make you think about the future of moderate Republicanism, given his collection of views?

There could be more room for moderation, because Trump has shown that the base isn’t fixed on complete ideological consistency. It really depends on what happens to Trump in the election. One potential argument, if he does lose, is that Trump’s extremism grew out of the anti-government, anti-institution rhetoric of conservatism, and that this has ceased to be appealing to people outside of the base. The other thing to consider is that most of the doctrines of things like supply-side economics began as tentative hypotheses subject to verification by reality.

Or not subject to verification, as the case may be.

Maybe not, but one of its most enthusiastic proponents was Jack Kemp. Who were the audiences he talked to about this? Often inner-city black communities. He really believed it would work in their favor, and the majority of the gains would be captured by the middle class and the working class. I would like to think Kemp had the intellectual honesty to say, “It turns out, all the benefits are going to the top 1 percent and something is wrong. We need to go back to the drawing board.” There hasn’t been that spirit of revisionism. I think the Trump candidacy has shown that the base doesn’t have that down-the-line conservatism, and is more interested in what will make their lives better. This is hard to determine because Ted Cruz was such an unappealing messenger, but it doesn’t seem like there has been a desire for a complete ideological warrior.

If Trump loses somewhat badly, which seems like the consensus view, and people can’t look this up and laugh at us during his fourth term as president—


If he does lose badly, do you think moderate Republicanism could use his defeat to stage a return?

There will be a horrible debate if Trump does lose because there won’t be clear lessons to be drawn, whereas there would have been if Cruz had been the nominee. That would have caused a rethinking like the one that followed the Goldwater defeat. The lessons of a Trump defeat would be much harder to draw. The argument for moderates would be that they constitute one third of Republican voters, and Trump has attracted and repelled them in equal measure. And I think that some self-identified moderates see him as a businessman who is uninterested in the ideological warfare that goes on in national politics. On the other hand, moderates want to broaden the party beyond the usual suspects and make it appealing to minorities and young people. And some of the people who have been the most anti-Trump are the most conservative, such as those in the House Freedom Caucus and Ben Sasse. One suspects that if Trump loses, the same old refrain will come up: We nominated a moderate in 2008, 2012, and 2016 and we lost. Time for a real conservative.

It’s interesting that you talked about some Republicans being exhausted with conflict and partisanship in Washington, because polls always showed that Republicans wanted their leaders to be the more partisan and confrontational with Obama. And now they have chosen a guy who says, “I’m a dealmaker.”

Yeah it’s true. Of course, they think he is a skilled dealmaker.

The best, Geoff, the best.

Right, and the hope is that he will get more than he gives. Part of his critique is that the establishment can’t negotiate and Obama gets the better of them. So yes, he wants pragmatism, but a pragmatism that will win.

I assume the super conservative folks you mentioned, like those in the Freedom Caucus, will all come around.

Yeah. There was always an underlying claim that moderates were never truly committed to the party, and the conservatives would have that charge thrown against them. On the other hand, there are going to be a lot of different levels at which people commit. Some people will try to promote him, some will highlight differences.

I have noticed this courageous distinction between endorse and support.

[Laughs.] Yes, a distinction without a difference.

So based on all you have said: If you are a professional Republican in Washington or someone committed to the party as it was before Trump, it seems like you might want Trump to lose.

It depends on what their salary is. There are a lot of people who have done very well saying more-or-less the same thing for 30 years. And they have secure positions in organizations committed to the traditional line. And Trump is a disruptive force. They worry about that. But he benefits some people. And he offers the possibility for creative destruction. If you worry the party is seen as old and out-of-touch, Trump might change that image. He doesn’t seem old, and he is exciting. Maybe this is the way new ideas and leaders can surface. Maybe Trump can even break the Democratic lock on some of these states.

You do get establishments in parties and organizations and they increasingly support the status quo, even when it doesn’t seem to be working anymore. And to change that ideally you evolve but sometimes evolution happens in sudden jumps rather than gradually. A lot of people would like to keep the good parts of Trump and dump the bad parts. I don’t think that’s possible.

It seems like the one thing he isn’t is someone the establishment can control.

No, he is not controllable, and I don’t know to what extent he can control himself. It often seems like he is acting against his own best interests, but people have been saying that since the beginning of the campaign and he has had the last laugh. But he is definitely a destructive force. What happens to the party depends on both how he does in the election and to what extent people can learn the lessons he has taught the party as a whole.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

*Update, May 17, 2016: This paragraph has been updated to clarify that although more Democrats than Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act, a higher percentage of Republicans did so.