For several years now there has been a fight within the Republican Party, pitting establishment Republicans against movement conservatives. The former group, most frequently associated with likes of Mitt Romney, George H.W. Bush and, in this election cycle, Jeb Bush and John Kasich, has strong ties to big business, champions low taxes, but also the need to actually govern, and while frequently taking conservative positions on social issues, rarely place great emphasis on those issues. The latter group are less concerned about governance and more focused on social issues and taking principled, if fruitless, positions to demonstrate their conservative bona fides. Count the Freedom Caucus in the House and people like Ted Cruz as members of this group. In the 2016 primary, these two factions—whose differences are ultimately more about style than substance—battled and produced a winner: Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump is not part of either faction. His views on trade, immigration and his temperament make him a poor representative of the GOP establishment, despite his business background. However, Mr. Trump’s views on some social issues and secular background make him a poor fit among movement conservatives. This is why the Republican paroxysms of panic over Mr. Trump’s nomination, particularly in the last week or so, have been both so emphatic, but also so puzzling. While many on the left oppose Mr. Trump because they believe him to be a budding authoritarian with no understanding of policy who will make America, not great again, but simply hateful, Republicans cannot figure out whether they oppose Mr. Trump because he is too moderate, unlikely to win or because they view him, like many Democrats do, as wildly unprepared to be President.
Since Mr. Trump clinched the nomination, a number of high profile Republicans from Paul Ryan to both George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush indicated they will not support Mr. Trump, but Democrats hoping for a disunited Republican Party, and an easy election victory for Hillary Clinton should not start celebrating. In the next few weeks and months several things will begin to dawn on Republican leaders currently not supporting Trump. First, any third party bid from a more traditional conservative Republican will only hand the election to Hillary Clinton. Second, Mr. Trump did not simply win the GOP nomination, but he won resoundingly against a very crowded and strong field. Third, it is not worth destroying the Republican Party because of a few policy differences between the nominee and a former President, former nominee for President or Speaker of the House. This will force many resistant Republicans to change their views and support Mr. Trump.
At this moment, things may look bad for the prospect of a a rapprochement, but that could easily change. Already, some of these Republicans are leaving themselves wiggle room to come back to their party’s nominee. Note, for example, the use of the phrase “at this point” and the word “now” in this statement by Paul Ryan in response to a question about whether or not he would support Mr. Trump. “I’m just not ready to do that at this point. I’m not there right now.”
The reason so many of these Republicans may end up supporting Mr. Trump is that if he does not win, Hillary Clinton will. Even if Mitt Romney and Bill Kristol recruit a more conservative Republican to get in the race, that candidate would probably finish third and make it even easier for Ms. Clinton to win.
Republicans who oppose Mr. Trump on the grounds that he is erratic, unprepared, dangerous or some combination of those qualities are faced with a quandary that is largely of their own making. Republicans like Mr. Ryan or Mr. Romney, who are now seeking to sound mature and reasonable, are also part of a party that has demonized Democrats generally, and Hillary Clinton specifically, for a generation. That demonization makes it hard to accept that choosing between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump should, on questions of policy, preparation and temperament, be clear for them. GOP hysteria notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton should be a relatively easy candidate for the Republican establishment to accept. She’s a foreign policy hawk and pro-free trade. Despite Ms. Clinton’s center-left views on some issues, she is still more palatable to the Republican establishment than Mr. Trump is.
For Republicans to accept this would be unimaginable and would cause a crisis of perception for a party that over the last several decades has built itself more around hatred for Clintons and Obamas than, as Mr. Trump’s nomination reveals, any cohesive and electorally popular policy vision. Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to give in to the GOP establishment suggests that he understands this; and that he believes that when the dust settles the GOP leaders, perhaps with a few exceptions, will choose him rather than admit, even if only to themselves, that another President Clinton is a better option. Mr. Trump is implicitly betting that GOP hatred for the Clintons will outweigh any alleged principle by the GOP leaders who have, in more ways than they care to recognize, facilitated his rise to power. I’m not betting against Mr. Trump on this one and expect to see the GOP leaders rationalizing away their concerns and endorsing their nominee with greater frequency with each passing week.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. His most recent book The Democracy Promotion Paradox, was published by the Brookings Institution Press in April of 2016. Follow Lincoln on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.