Late Thursday night, the National Review, the storied conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley, published an issue denouncing Donald Trump.
“Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones,” the editors wrote. “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”
The Republican National Committee reacted swiftly – immediately revoking the permission it had given National Review to host a Republican presidential debate next month. “Tonight, a top official with the RNC called me to say that National Review was being disinvited,” the magazine’s publisher wrote online. “The reason: Our ‘Against Trump’ editorial.”
That soft flapping sound you hear is the Grand Old Party waving the flag of surrender to Trump. Party elites – what’s left of the now-derided “establishment” – are acquiescing to the once inconceivable: that a xenophobic and bigoted showman is now the face of the Republican Party and of American conservatism.
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In recent days, influential Republicans including Bob Dole, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, Rupert Murdoch and now, as my Washington Post colleagues just reported, Rudy Giuliani and Peter King, have made noises about being able to stomach Trump. Republican donors are trying to insinuate themselves in the billionaire’s orbit. Trump himself said Thursday: “I have received so many phone calls from people that you would call ‘establishment,’ from people – generally speaking, conservatives, Republicans – that want to come onto our team.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial page had long criticized Trump’s candidacy, publishing an editorial in July arguing that the conservative media who applaud Donald Trump “are hurting the cause.” The editors opined: “If Donald Trump becomes the voice of conservatives, conservatism will implode along with him.”
Earlier this month, the Journal reversed course. “Mr. Trump is a better politician than we ever imagined, and he is becoming a better candidate,” the editorialists wrote, speculating that “he might possibly be able to appeal to a larger set of voters than he has so far.”
I had been confident that Republican primary voters would reject Trump. I still think they would, if given the chance. But they haven’t been given a clear alternative. Because of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Kasich and the others selfishly refusing to unite behind any one of them, the anti-Trump vote has been scattered.
Instead, they’ve let the GOP primary battle turn into a fight between Trump and Ted Cruz, and the party’s old guard has decided Trump is marginally better because he’s more malleable.
But how do you un-ring all these bells? Trump has in word and deed built his candidacy by antagonizing Latinos and Muslims, immigrants and women, Jews and African-Americans, Asian-Americans and the disabled. And if he walked away from his vows to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and to block Muslims from coming into the United States, he’d abandon the source of his power: the rage of angry, less-educated white men.
My colleague Michael Gerson recently wrote that “the nomination of Trump would reduce Republican politics – at the presidential level – to an enterprise of squalid prejudice. And many Republicans could not follow, precisely because they are Republicans. By seizing the GOP, Trump would break it to pieces.”
But how many Republicans could not follow? Partisanship is now more important than any other factor in predicting Americans’ votes, which means there is little possibility of a Goldwater-style landslide against Trump. Republicans could nominate a ham sandwich and still get 45 percent of the vote.
Heck, Trump could even win – particularly if Democrats nominate a socialist to oppose him – but the only thing more likely to devastate the Republican Party and the conservative movement than a Trump wipeout in November would be a Trump victory. Either way, he’d cement the Republican Party’s long-term demographic problems and bind conservatism to bigotry and nativism.
This is why I wonder about the self-deception of those GOP elites now cozying up to Trump.
The Hill newspaper last week interviewed major donor Robert Bazyk, who decamped to Trump from Bush. The big spender objects to Trump’s positions on refugees and Muslims, and his “insults and name-calling.” And yet he is funding the man.
If, in future years, Republicans and conservatives are called to explain how Trump happened, they might recall this: Good people could have stopped him, but they didn’t.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.