A Donald Trump nomination means several elements of the Republican Party will sit out the election, vote third-party or even vote Democrat. The seams of the GOP coalition are tearing apart in front of our eyes.
After Donald Trump's South Carolina victory, conservative movement leader Erick Erickson declared he would never vote for Trump even in November. "I have become convinced that Donald Trump’s pro-life conversion is a conversion of convenience. Life is the foremost cause in how I vote. Therefore I will not be voting for Donald Trump at all. Ever."
The Washington Examiner's Timothy Carney goes deep on the abortion question, concluding, "Conscience forbids us to cross some lines ... If Trump is the nominee, pro-lifers will have no candidate."
The following day, top Republican political consultant Rick Wilson made a similar declaration: "I will never vote for Donald Trump because he’s a pro-gun control, pro-single-payer health care, pro-eminent domain, pro-abortion, and pro-statism liberal who will immediately revert to form when he’s finished selling his fauxservatism to people he patently views as rubes ... I will never vote for Donald Trump because it’s utterly obvious that he lacks the temperament, judgment, and basic sanity to be placed as steward over 7,700 nuclear weapons and the rest of the awesome power of the United States military."
(UPDATE: Neoconservative hawk Robert Kagan writes in the Washington Post: "For this former Republican, and perhaps for others, the only choice will be to vote for Hillary Clinton.")
And after Trump's Nevada caucus win, former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain Mark Salter went as far as saying Hillary Clinton should be president if Trump is the nominee. Salter rips Trump for disrespecting prisoners of war and being cavalier about torture: "Were he to order military and intelligence officers to employ torture, as he insists he would, they would resign rather than comply, as they would if he ordered them to take innocent lives on purpose. He would deserve to be impeached."
Other conservatives refusing to vote for Trump under any circumstances see Trump as permanently harming the conservative cause. Longtime movement leader Peter Wehner wrote last month in the New York Times that he would never vote Trump because, "If Mr. Trump heads the Republican Party, it will no longer be a conservative party; it will be an angry, bigoted, populist one."
This week, The Federalist's David Harsanyi argued a Clinton presidency would be better for conservatism than a Trump presidency: "Hillary will ... galvanize the Right [and] reinforce the traditional ideological distinctions we’ve debated for years ... Republicans would almost certainly unite against her agenda ... [But] considering his long history of supporting big government, that Trump would try and cobble together a populist coalition for polices they hate. This will end up marginalizing ideological conservatism from within the party."
And the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein offers a comprehensive list of reasons why he will never vote Trump, including that Trump is an enemy of "property rights" and "free trade."
Pro-lifers. National security hawks. Libertarians. Free-traders. These are pillars of the Republican coalition, and portions of them will abandon Trump.
What had been an ideologically coherent party will become a cult of personality powered by hatred of immigrants and Muslims.
The shattering would present opportunity and risk for the likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. (Bernie Sanders would need to pull off a major surprise on March 1 for the delegate math to work in his favor.)
While she has embraced much economic populist rhetoric during the primary, she has not shied away from her support of military interventions (though tagging her a "neocon" overstates the case; she is within the long-standing Democratic tradition of humanitarian-based military intervention, not imperialism). She would happily accept support from Republican hawks as evidence of her commander-in-chief credentials, and proof that Trump's bluster is not conducive to stopping international terrorism.
Reaching out to Republican free-traders would require more political dexterity. She has expressed opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as presently written, closing a gap with Sanders that he wanted to exploit because of her past support. Not being a hard-line opponent, she will be tempted to communicate that she won't reflexively reject future deals. But she won't want to lose support from the anti-TPP left, either to Trump or to the Green Party. Expect careful calibration.
Clinton will never get the support of the anti-abortion constituency. But they can be persuaded to sit out the election or vote third-party. It's possible that anti-abortion leaders spread the word about Trump on their own, as a way to tell Republican leaders they can't be taken for granted. But don't be surprised to see some new "independent" group pop up to do the job.
Will that be the absolute end of the Republican Party? The GOP has split before, in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt walked out of the convention and ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket. But the looming Great War and hatred of Woodrow Wilson compelled Roosevelt to stitch the party back together in 1916.
The Republican Party survived, but was changed forever. What had been an ideological hybrid was set on a conservative path, leaving Democrats to pick up the remnants of progressivism.
Trump sets back the century-long process of ideological clarification between the parties, erasing what the Republican Party has stood for and replacing it with hype and hate.
Conservatism has made itself vulnerable to the Trumpian virus. When its ideology sunk the George W. Bush presidency, conservatives failed to take responsibility, learn lessons and make adjustments. They failed to reinvigorate the Republican Party with ideas relevant to today's challenge. They cared more about obstruction than solution.
Now they risk being without a party at all. In 1912, President William Taft saved conservatism from becoming politically homeless. In 2016, no one has yet to step up to save the day.