Any number of unforeseen events still might upend the race for the White House. Right now, as it happens, a powerful hurricane is barreling down on the Southeast that might affect the region’s electoral calculus in November—though how exactly we cannot know. But if no exogenous event dramatically changes the dominant dynamics of the race as it stands today, Donald Trump is likely to lose. As such, Republicans need to start thinking about the fallout from 2016 and how to heal the lingering divisions from a fractious year defined by internecine conflict.
This project is necessary because so many on both sides of the lingering divide over Trump within the GOP do not particularly want to reconcile. Currently, Donald Trump is underperforming Mitt Romney among white voters. While Hillary Clinton is having a bear of a time reassembling Barack Obama’s winning coalition, Republicans are unlikely to see gains among minorities, women, and young voters. Trump will have run the campaign that Republicans warned against in the oft-maligned 2012 “autopsy” and proven every one of its recommendations correct. His loss should finally put to rest the idea that the GOP can win the White House on the shoulders of “missing white voters.”
Conservatives are fortunate that they will be well positioned to pick up the pieces of the Republican Party after November. Despite endorsing Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan has managed to preserve the integrity of his governing agenda—one that is largely at odds with Trumpism. Moreover, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have repeatedly insisted that Trump represents an aberration from conventional conservative and Republican thought, complicating the Democratic Party’s mission of branding the GOP with the celebrity candidate’s discredited ideas in future cycles.
Donald Trump himself has explicitly rejected conservatism and the support of conservatives, and his most vocal supporters on the right have followed suit. Conservatives do not, however, have the luxury of ejecting Trump backers from the Republican Party’s coalition. Even if such a purge were possible, it would not be reasonable or prudent. The Republican Party is not a national party without a national voting coalition, and every rank and file member Donald Trump brings to the voting booth in November will be a member of it. Anti-Trump Republicans need to remember the lesson of the “autopsy” as much as do pro-Trump Republicans: electoral politics is a game of addition.
That being said, the coalition cannot be reformed around two competing ideas. Trumpism exists at odds with conservatism, and the party as reconstituted in 2017 must be one built up around conservative ideals of limited government, free trade, an internationalist foreign policy, and an unqualified rejection of identity politics. In short, Republicans of all stripes must be made to acknowledge and accept that Trumpism is an experiment that failed. That’s the price of admission, and it’s a modest one given the great costs associated with sacrificing a winnable race for the White House.
Early this year, I noted that Republicans have a model to turn to in the pursuit of reconciliation in works of Edmund Burke. A man of foresight, he warned against waging a perpetual conflict that inevitably seeks to punish successive generations for the sins of their fathers. The petty, vengeful prosecution of a feud long after one side has been unambiguously defeated is not just unproductive but morally questionable. The vanquished must furl their flags and renounce their cause, but they should be left to keep their side arms and return to their fields.
That is not to say that there can be no reckoning. While the average voter seduced by the promise of #MAGA should be returned to the fold, there are those who collaborated with Trump or whose narrow self-interests led them to believe he would preserve the comfortable order of things. For some, examples must be made. Republicans in Washington who, for example, found the prospect of losing with Trump preferable to winning with Ted Cruz for fear of overturning the profitable applecart on K-Street. And conservative performance artists who impugned both the inefficacy of conservatism and the vestigial idol worship of constitutionalism. And those who seemed intent on reinvigorating white supremacy, undoing decades of noble stigmatization in the process. Those who legitimized Trumpism with all its self-evident warts must be made to confront the fruits of their labors.
For the rest of the GOP, however, reunification and a recapitulation of something resembling a national governing coalition must be the foremost priority. Unity of purpose will be necessary to serve as a bulwark against Hillary Clinton and her efforts to chisel Barack Obama’s achievement into America’s foundation. The pressures on Republicans will be immense. Democrats will do their best to exacerbate the fissures within the coalition, and the talker class will surely return to the profitable work of naming alleged quislings within the GOP. It will be on those who kept Trump at arm’s length to put this conflict to bed as magnanimously as possible. If they succeed against these odds, the Republican Party can renew itself and return to the necessary work of preserving the ideals of America’s founding.