The Republican Party is unifying, with astonishing speed.
We used to think of the Republican Party as the one that valued unity, conformity, a disparate coalition of interests and advocates all coming together to sing in a harmonious chorus, particularly as Election Day approached. It was the Democrats who were fractured, contentious, and incapable of common action; the cliched headline “Dems In Disarray!” was mocked, but it was often true. Then came the Obama years, when the Republican Party rent itself asunder, the conflict between its cringing establishment and its angry base becoming the defining dynamic of the era. And it culminated in the party making a vulgarian buffoon its choice for president, a man whose combination of naked bigotry, epic ignorance, and ideological shape-shifting led large portions of the party to revolt against him.
And yet, a full two months before Republicans formally nominate Donald Trump as their presidential nominee, the party is lining up behind his gold-plated banner with striking speed. What happened to the party that was at war with itself?
The answer is that while there are still notes of dissent—some big donors who don’t want to open their checkbooks for him, some writers and pundits who hold to their previous expressions of disgust, a speaker of the House making sure everyone knows about his misgivings (all the better to say “I told you so” if and when Trump loses)—the party is looking more unified than it has in years.
It’s happening at both the mass and elite level. Among party bigwigs, “No way!” is turning into “Maybe we can live with this,” which will in short order become, “Go Trump!” As Politico reported Friday, “During this week’s [Republican Governors Association] meeting, Alex Castellanos, a veteran Republican strategist who spent part of last year pitching donors on an anti-Trump TV campaign, delivered a presentation in which he argued that the New York businessman has a better than 50 percent chance of winning.”
He knows where his bread is buttered, and the party’s voters are coming around, too. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Trump getting 86 percent of Republicans’ votes, with only 6 percent saying they oppose him. That’s slightly better than Clinton does among Democrats, 83 percent of whom support her in a head-to-head match-up, with 9 percent defecting to Trump. Of course, Trump and Clinton are at different points in their campaign: Trump’s opponents have all dropped out, meaning that supporters of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio have already had some time to get used to the new reality, while Bernie Sanders is still fighting on (and telling his supporters that any result other than him winning is inherently illegitimate, the product of a corrupt system that needs to be dismantled).
Republicans are busy rationalizing, convincing themselves that Trump isn’t just a gigantic blow-dried turd their crazy cousins left on their doorstep, but the guy they wanted (or at least should have wanted) all along.
So Republicans are busy rationalizing, convincing themselves that Trump isn’t just a gigantic blow-dried turd their crazy cousins left on their doorstep, but the guy they wanted (or at least should have wanted) all along. As The Washington Post reports in its most recent poll, 72 percent of Republicans now say they want an outsider rather than someone who has experience, which has pushed the overall number of respondents favoring an outsider past 50 percent. “In the winter and early spring of this year, experience was significantly more in favor—preferred by nearly 30 points over being an outsider. Fluctuations in that choice likely will affect the fortunes of the two candidates, as Clinton is the embodiment of political experience and Trump is a symbol of the outsider promising big change.”
This is a perfect example of an assumption you often see running under discussions of results like this: People have motivations rooted in abstract ideas like “I’d like to see an outsider,” and then those factors determine their vote. But it’s usually wrong. In fact, the chain of reasoning moves in the opposite direction. People decide who they’re voting for, then come up with justifications to explain it. So if you’re a Republican who has finally decided that Trump is your pick, when you’re asked about experience versus outsiderdom, you don’t want to feel the cognitive dissonance of believing that experience is more important when your choice for president is so inexperienced. So you say you favor an outsider, because that’s what you’ve got.
In the coming days, you should expect to see a lot of Republicans, even those who hesitated before, talking about how Donald Trump is exactly the kind of leader we need right now. As they’re trying to convince you, they’ll be convincing themselves.
And let’s be honest: Many of those rationalizations make perfect sense. If you’re a Republican, you can comfort yourself with the idea that even though Trump may not be as ideologically pure as you’d like, even if he were pulling policy positions out of a hat, half the time he’d do what you wanted, whereas a Democratic administration almost never will. And it may even be, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that this least-ideological of Republican contenders could be the most ideologically conservative president they could hope for. Precisely because he doesn’t care at all about policy, he’s likely to just sign whatever bills the Republican Congress sends him and outsource to them all that boring work of making laws and regulations. Just look at the list of 11 potential Supreme Court nominees he released last week: It was a conservative wish list, and I’d bet you that just a few days later he couldn’t name more than one or two of them.
There will be some Republican voters who can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump, and so will either choose Clinton or not vote at all. But that number is likely to be small in the end, even if small numbers can make a real difference in a closely divided electorate. There will be a few elected officials like Senator Ben Sassewhose emphatic opposition to Trump can’t be walked back (or who see their noble stand as shrewd positioning for a future run of their own). There will be some, like Jeb Bush, who have no future plans to run for office, and so risk nothing by opposing Trump.
But on the whole, the voices of the #NeverTrump Republicans will grow quieter and quieter, as more party stalwarts make the reasonable decision to get behind him. And the more unified the party appears, the more it seems to any Republican, from the lowliest voter to the loftiest elected official, that joining in that unity is the only sensible thing to do.
Latest Update – 13 July 2016
Donald Trump made up his deficit against Hillary Clinton in a series of new key battleground-state polls, swinging to leads in Florida and Pennsylvania and a tie in Ohio.
The new set of Quinnipiac University polls released Wednesday found the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in a dead heat with Clinton in the three states, a slight change from similar Quinnipiac University polls conducted last month.
Clinton’s biggest drop was in Florida, where last month she led Trump by 8 points. In Wednesday’s poll of the state, Trump garnered 42% support to Clinton’s 39% — within the poll’s 3.1% margin of error.
Wednesday’s poll of Pennsylvania voters, meanwhile, found Trump with 43% support to Clinton’s 41%, a slight change from last month’s poll which found the former secretary of state leading Trump by one point. Ohio’s race remained unchanged, as both candidates remained tied for the second month in a row.