The set up is a novelist's dream, a party chair's nightmare -- a mortally wounded presidential candidate reeling toward the nomination, guaranteed in November to drag the party and its candidates into an open grave. And this nightmare has a sequel: maddened by defeat, the party's factions scrape against each other to create a devastating political earthquake, shattering all hope of resurrection.
Such is the all too real world of Reince Priebus.
The protagonist of his sleepless nights is, of course, Donald Trump. By now, one need not catalog the ignorance, truculence, misogyny and racism which will doom Republicans in the fall. But these fatal flaws have given Trump a base of support among primary voters as obdurate as granite. He has become the bone in the GOP's throat which cannot be dislodged.
Focus groups conducted by Peter Hart -- the gold standard for this sort of thing -- spell out why. Many of Trump's followers have misgivings about his excesses; others don't truly believe that he can build a wall or deport every illegal immigrant. Some don't even care that much. What cements them to Trump is deeper -- a psychic bond too visceral to sunder.
Central to this is a perception of "strength" -- that Trump will stand up to the establishment which shuns them and terrorists who threaten them. Specifics do not matter. What counts is that Trump gives voice to their anger, frustration and fear, the soul-deep sense that America has betrayed them.
Lodged within this is racial animus exacerbated by the election of Barack Obama. It is salient that Trump first surfaced riding the Trojan horse of birtherism, jam-packed with loathing of our first black president. That Trump rallies seethe with racial antagonism is no accident -- he is the avatar for those who feel that whites, not minorities, are the victims of discrimination and disdain.
Confronted with this disturbing phenomenon, the GOP establishment ran in both directions: some surrendered too soon; others went after Trump too late. After dithering for months, the donor classes have funded over $70 million in attack ads which have driven Trump's disapproval ratings sky high -- two thirds of all Americans, and a substantial plurality of Republicans. The result is paradoxical: they have helped destroy him as a general election candidate while persuading his followers that they and Trump share a common enemy, cementing a base of support which will likely prove sufficient to secure the nomination.
Worse yet, they have been thwarted by a broadcast media, desperate for ratings, which seized on Trump like oxygen in human form. Our screens are filled with Trump interviews; Trump rallies; Trump town halls; Trump tweets; Trump relatives. By now Trump has received well over $2 billion in free media, swamping his Republican rivals. To a remarkable degree, the television establishment has insulated Trump from the Republican establishment -- and from the laws of political gravity.
And so he staggers on, his unfitness ever more apparent, accumulating delegates as he tramples all hope of unity with the heedlessness of a drunk who cannot stop drinking. He castigates the party for its unfairness; decries its "rigged" selection of delegates; threatens riots in Cleveland; refuses to support any nominee by himself. He demands control over the convention so that he can infuse a "showbiz" quality, and muses aloud about firing Priebus.
His ally, Roger Stone, has started a website calling for protests at the convention so that Trump supporters can "own the streets." The Cleveland police are investing in riot gear, and prominent Republican officeholders have decided to stay away. In the meanwhile, Trump daily dispels the fantasy that he can expand the GOP electorate, alienating suburbanites and women by the score.
The advent of professionals within Trump's campaign increases his chances of winning in Cleveland without addressing the problem of Trump himself. His policy positions change from day to day, confirming his weightlessness as a potential president. And the barely credible suggestion that once nominated he will recalibrate his rhetoric and persona casts him as a self-absorbed shape shifter, whose sole reason for running is that, in whatever guise, he's " Trump."
But within the party one can hear the rising murmur of resignation, including from Priebus himself. The squeamish hopes that some Republicans have invested in Ted Cruz are foundering on the narrowness of his appeal. Trump obliterated him in New York, dispelling the myth that Cruz can serve as a magnet for the stop-Trump movement. In truth, Cruz is a regional candidate, reduced in today's Northeastern primaries to fighting John Kasich for table scraps. When the results sink in, the sense of Trump's momentum could turn the anti-Trump firewall to rubble.
Weeks ago, Trump destroyed the core of Cruz's strategy by piling up victories in the South. So why should anyone imagine that the Cruz agenda will mesmerize America? He opposes all gun control measures. He would force the victims of rape and incest to bear children. He denounces gay marriage and gay rights. He echoes Trump's calls for mass deportations and says that the neighborhoods of American Muslims should be "secured" by law enforcement. And then there is this -- why would voters warm to a man his colleagues despise?
They won't. Cruz is dead demagogue walking. A big chunk of his support comes from voters who simply don't like Trump. But Trump represents a bigger chunk of people who don't like Cruz, and support their man with a fervor Cruz will never match. As for the tenuous last-ditch agreement between Cruz and Kasich to divide up Indiana, New Mexico and Oregon, it seems doomed to failure.
To start, it came way too late to make much difference -- at this point it is less a compelling strategy than a measure of Cruz's desperation. It also assumes the unlikely: first, that the great majority of Cruz and Kasich voters will go along; second, that it will work despite the complex mechanisms for allocating delegates in the forthcoming primary states, often by awarding them proportionally or to the winner in demographically varied districts; third, that the erstwhile competitors can find a modus vivendi for the biggest prize, California.
Worst of all, this calculating alliance between opposites will give Trump fresh evidence of a conspiracy against him, solidifying his followers' support while further alienating them from the party. Far more than arcane delegate rules, the two-headed monster of Cruz and Kasich personifies establishment perfidy.
Where this goes is plain to see. Whether or not Trump clinches the nomination before Cleveland, he will have a commanding delegate lead over Cruz, for whom a first-ballot majority -- or even anything close to that -- is mathematically impossible. And any sane Republican insider will perceive reality soon enough -- that Cruz's strategy for winning the nomination on the convention floor is electoral suicide.
Like his pact with Kasich, the plan is blatantly Machiavellian and self-serving, the very essence of Ted Cruz: making up the yawning delegate gap by recruiting double agents -- delegates who will abandon Trump for Cruz on the second ballot, nullifying the result of state primaries. For the party to somehow maneuver a Cruz nomination -- let alone by transparent trickery -- would be a poison pill, outraging Trump's supporters and repelling voters at large. As Peter Hart puts it, "Trump may be a disaster for their hopes in winning back the White House, but denying him may be an even bigger disaster for the party's hopes of retaining its majorities on Capitol Hill."
This goes double for alternative saviors, whether Kasich or the second coming of Mitt Romney. Which is why Paul Ryan, no fool, ran in the opposite direction.
But Trump is the tremor which presages an earthquake. For the fissures which will roil the convention will fracture the party for years to come.
The most shattering is the fear and loathing between Trump's blue-collar base and the wealthy donors and ideological conservatives who have labeled them electoral lowlife.
This poisonous contempt is the party's due bill for all the years of diversionary rhetoric designed to win votes from working-class Americans. But the establishment's true agenda -- lower taxes, free trade, deregulation and fiscal discipline -- did nothing to improve their lives.
The role of free trade in alienating blue-collar voters is, by now, obvious -- and rocket fuel for Trump. Less widely noted is that Republican legislators squelched programs to ameliorate its effects. As Steven Rattner pointed out in the New York Times, the Republican Congress killed Obama's proposals for larger tax credits for child care; investing in community colleges; helping make retirement plans portable; and giving tax relief to manufacturing communities.
The same fate met programs to retrain workers; help them relocate when their jobs went overseas; or temporarily supplement their wages if they were compelled to take a lesser job. Ditto for payroll tax cuts and creating an infrastructure bank to fund thousands of construction jobs. The coup de grace was cutting back on food stamps. In sum, the GOP establishment -- epitomized by Ryan -- waged a class war against its base.
The base noticed. Donald Trump is the expression of their anger, not the cause. They are through with drinking the GOP's Kool-Aid.
Outraged, the dispensers of the Kool-Aid have turned on their erstwhile victims with the ferocity of a Rottweiler. Allow me to treat you to a few paragraphs of Kevin Williamson in the National Review, showing what happens when a "true conservative" feels spurned by lesser beings:
It wasn't immigrants from Mexico... There wasn't some awful disaster. There wasn't a war or a famine or plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence -- and the incomprehensible malice -- of poor white America...
The truth about these dysfunctional downscale communities is that they deserved to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs...
The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump's speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn't analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means they need real change, which means that they need U-haul.
To say the least, this marriage is unlikely to be saved. The Paul Ryans of the party are unrepentant; the GOP's hitherto most reliable followers have now identified the class enemy. The rise of Donald Trump is only the beginning.
But less advantaged Republicans are at odds with another element of the party -- the neocons who gave them the Iraq war. This epic foreign-policy disaster created an epidemic of the dead; the hideously wounded; the emotionally traumatized; the intellectually maimed; the alcoholic, drug addicted and suicidal. These soldiers were twice betrayed - first overseas, then by a Veterans Administration which treated them like cattle.
The veterans who pay this terrible price are not the children of Republican donors, officeholders, or theoreticians -- they are the sons and daughters of people the ideologues now scorn. Those who love them are done with the wars of armchair generals.
But no schism is complete without religious conflict. Republicans have that, too.
For years the GOP bought off white evangelicals by preaching that old-time religion -- ban abortion, fight gay rights, and rail against the separation of church and state. For the Republican establishment, this was a cheap and easy way to gain votes for their economic program. But much of the the fundamentalist agenda has been routed -- as the religious rank-and-file notices their paychecks shrinking, their failed leaders are doubling down.
Hence efforts in Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi to flail against gay rights -- barring anti-discrimination laws and promoting the "religious freedom" of businesses to spurn gay customers. But at last the GOP's business leaders are objecting -- not on moral grounds, but pragmatic ones: this kind of stuff is a loser among young people, and bad for business at that.
In short order, business interests impressed this lesson on the Republican governor and legislators of North Carolina, severing their ties with the state, even as uneasy corporations are cutting back their funding for the GOP convention. Here, again, key elements of the party are pulling in opposite directions which cannot be reversed.
Finally, the fight between Trump and Cruz will deepen all these fractures going forward. Both will lose in November; all that differs are the details of fragmentation. The defeat of Trump will lead to right-wing recriminations against both his followers and the party establishment, intensifying the internecine warfare which will further shrink the party's electorate. The defeat of Cruz will eviscerate the claim that the GOP can win the presidency by moving hard-right, aggravating the schism between the ideologues and everyone else. The center cannot hold.
It is hard to kill off a major political party. The Republicans proved that between 1964 and 1968, rallying from the Goldwater debacle to win the presidency with Richard Nixon. But that was then, when the Democrats were riven by the war in Vietnam.
Now the Democrats are having an honest fight -- nasty, to be sure, but one whose premises are commonly understood: that a society does better when more of its citizens thrive, and that helping to ensure this is a legitimate concern of government.
Not so the Republicans. They are structurally fragmented and ideologically incoherent, an agglomeration of sects with irreconcilable differences. Their only common denominator is that all are at war with the changing demographics which, at the presidential level, are doing the party in.
In short, the GOP of 2016 is Humpty Dumpty. He has had a great fall, and cannot be put together again, at least as we have known him -- not in 2020, or ever. Whatever takes his place will look so different that Humpty would not know it.
No great loss.