The Republican Party came to a fork in its road a while back, and it made a fateful choice.
“We’re with Trump,” House Speaker Paul Ryan bluntly acknowledged this week. “We already made that choice. That’s a choice we made at the beginning of the year. That’s a choice we made during the campaign, which is we merged our agendas. We ran on a joint agenda with Donald Trump.”
Ryan’s phrasing — “we’re with Trump” — is both appropriate and telling. Trump isn’t with the Republican Party; the party is with him. Wherever he goes, they must now follow. Ryan, Ted Cruz and others in the party who once dared to defy him now tread obediently in his footsteps, like hound dogs after their master. In fact, in the minds of supporters and enemies alike, Trump now defines the Republican Party more fully and completely than did Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower or any figure since Abraham Lincoln.
From the economy to foreign policy to health care, the Grand Old Party no longer has steadfast principles to defend or policies to enact. It has a personality to promote and please. It has devolved into a cult of personality, and the personality in question happens to be an erratic if charismatic bully, playing president with forces and powers that he does not comprehend.
As we saw this week in elections around the country, that allegiance comes with consequences. In Virginia, a governor’s race that Trump and his allies, including Steve Bannon, hailed beforehand as a test of “Trumpism without Trump” went very badly. You know the results by now: In what had been expected to be a close race, the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, got swamped, as did every other GOP candidate running statewide. The carnage was even greater in down-ticket races, with Republicans losing more seats in the state House of Delegates than any party had lost since the 19th century.
Just three years earlier, in a race for the U.S. Senate, Gillespie had lost by just 0.8 of a percentage point, or 18,000 votes statewide. In Tuesday’s test of “Trumpism without Trump,” the same candidate, running in the same state but on a Trump agenda, lost by 8.9 points, or 232,000 votes statewide.
What happened? Trump happened. Even more ominously, among voters 44 and younger — the people who will form the electorate of the future — Gillespie lost by an astounding 30 points. In the New Jersey governor’s race, that divide was even more profound: Among voters 44 and younger, the Republican there lost by 36 points.
That’s the kind of showing that makes it very, very difficult to rebuild a political party. There’s just no future in that.
Although the Republican base and many of its elected officials are clearly with Trump at the moment, campaign professionals and some clear-eyed conservatives recognize the danger. They still hold out hope of somehow separating the party’s fortunes from those of its current leader, of finding a future fork in the road that will lead them away from the destructive, divisive brand of politics that Trump exemplifies.
There’s only one feasible way that happens, one path by which that divorce can be achieved, and it is illuminated by what happened in Virginia. The only path that leads to a more responsible, sober Republican Party, a party that might be capable of governing in a way that this version is not, that allows its leaders to lead instead of having their actions dictated by talk-radio entertainers and Fox News, is through resounding defeat.
There is no path but through fire.