For decades, the GOP has been playing its base for suckers, by running the Grand Old Play: pander to the small-government, traditional-values rubes, and then get back to real business: serving business. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne traces the history of this "serial betrayal" in his new book, Why the Right Went Wrong.
But after falling for it over and over, the marks are finally waking up to the con -- and they're out of their minds with rage.
That's why so many of them support Donald Trump, who by any traditional measure is an insane choice for a presidential candidate.
And it's why the establishment can't say anything to undermine Trump's support.
It's the cost of spending decades teaching people not to trust you -- especially if you also spent those decades rebranding reason as "liberal bias." No argument will get you out of paying that bill.
So the establishment seems to be giving up the fight. Instead, it's making a tentative, nose-holding move towards Trump. It's a move made not in surrender, but in desperate hope: GOP elites pray that for all his populist posturing, Trump is really just a more flamboyant version of the Grand Old Play.
They're trusting that eventually Trump will drop the act. As Bob Dole says, "He's got the right personality and he's kind of a deal-maker." After all, deals are what Trump has done throughout his checkered business career. He's cut them with Democrats, Republicans, Saudi princes, mob-affiliated contractors, whomever, as long as it he thinks he'll come out ahead (though he's often been wrong about that). To get the deal done, he'll say whatever he needs to.
Trump admitted as much in his recent interview with the New York Times editorial board:
Mr. Trump talked about the art of applause lines. "You know," he said of his events, "if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, 'We will build the wall!' and they go nuts."
So maybe the GOP can cut its own deal. But let's step through what happens next.
There are four plausible scenarios party leaders need to plan for:
1. Trump loses the Republican primary to a relatively sane alternative, i.e. not Ted Cruz or one of the other extremist (but unlikely-to-win) choices.
2. Trump loses the Republican primary to Ted Cruz (again, God forbid).
3. Trump wins the primary, but loses the general.
4. Trump wins it all (oh please, God forbid).
You could argue that if the elites embrace Trump, any of these scenarios works out better for them.
Scenario 1. The establishment embrace damages Trump's brand (and he's nothing but brand), helping him lose, they hope, to a more palatable candidate. Then the Grand Old Play can proceed more or less as it always has.
Scenario 2. Trump still loses, although after vanquishing one demon, the GOP has summoned a worse one in Cruz. As nutty as Trump is, he doesn't want to tear down the system that made him wealthy. But Ted Cruz has shown he's willing to tear down anything that isn't Ted Cruz. I'll leave exploring this nightmare for another time, but for now, let's assume the party would try to adapt its Trump strategy to Cruz.
Scenario 3. After Trump wins the primary, the party's reputation is beaten down even more for a few months, since it is now officially led by a global and historical embarrassment. But at least the suffering would end in November!
Scenario 4. If a (I hesitate even to write it) President Trump does in fact turn out to be a deal-maker, the GOP establishment does everything it can to run a non-catastrophic presidency. It surrounds Trump with regents who know what they're doing, prevents him from actually wielding power, and keeps him happy by flattering his Titanic ego (huge but fragile, like the ship).
You can see how to the GOP, embracing Trump might look, if you squint really hard, sort of clever.
But it turns out to be a kamikaze strategy: all the party can win is full ownership of its destruction.
Under each of these scenarios, the rage of base voters will go beyond extreme. This time, finally, they were promised the end of the betrayals. But once again, betrayed they will be, either by the party, Trump, or both. Meanwhile, mainstream Republicans will recoil from their party's apparently limitless cynicism.
The GOP, left with no valid claim to either its base or its mainstream, will just finish splitting into pieces.
There is another choice, though, unlikely as it may seem. Republican leaders could show true leadership. They could repudiate Trump, Cruz, and all forms of extremism, and make a brave stand for principled conservatism.
They would still be likely to lose. But they would lose with honor. And on that, they could begin to rebuild.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.