As reality starts to set in that Donald Trump is now very difficult to block from the Republican nomination, we are starting to see real speculation about what happens to the Republican Party after it nominates... well... him. For a nice example, see Seth Masket's piece here. I've seen this kind of speculation before.
Once, long ago, Democrats held a lock on the House majority. That majority was unbroken for 40 years. Amidst that reign, scholars didn't even bother looking much at the operation of House Republicans. A pair of scholars-- William Connolly and Jack Pitney-- decided to write a book about them. They called the book, Congress' Permanent Minority. Just before the book went to press, they decided to add a question mark to the title. They did so in August of 1994.
Anyone bothering to read this blog (which is basically just me admiring my own writing) probably knows what happened a few months later. In November, Republicans won control of the House for the first time in decades in a landslide electoral victory.
Fast forward to 2004. After the election, Karl Rove began talking about how Bush had put together a Republican majority that would last for a generation. I participated in a post-election forum at Oberlin, where I taught at the time, in which students asked about the Democrats' future. I told the Connolly & Pitney story, and then speculated about what could shift things. I mentioned that part of the lead-up to the 1994 landslide was Newt Gingrich's takedown of former Speaker Jim Wright on ethics charges, and the political turmoil over the 1993 budget, a failed effort at healthcare reform, etc. I then mentioned the possibility of the Iraq war taking a turn for the worse, and the possibility of ethics charges against Republican congressional leaders like Tom DeLay.
The war took a turn for the worse, and Tom DeLay was eventually indicted and convicted on ethics violations (although the conviction was overturned). Democrats won back control of Congress in 2006.
Fast forward again to 2008. After Obama's victory, a student asked me about the potential collapse of the Republican Party, referencing the concept of a "realignment." I responded with the Connolly & Pitney story, and the 2004/6 story.
Fast forward to 2010. Republicans retake Congress in another landslide wave election, and speculation runs rampant that the Democratic Party doomed itself with Obamacare. My answer? Watch the economy. If it picked up, Obama would win.
And here we are. Will Donald Trump doom the Republican Party? You can probably guess my answer. (Or rather, I, as my own reader, know my own answer-- funny how that works).
Let's assume Trump gets the nomination. Here are the scenarios:
1) Republicans unify around Trump because the alternative is Hillary, who murdered Vince Foster with her bare hands, according to a popular legend. Trump wins. What happens next? My previous post speculated that Trump is the next Carter. More on that later. For now, though, remember that the Democratic Party survived that just fine, even retaining control of the House for 14 years after Carter left office.
2) Republicans unify around Trump, and Trump loses. Republicans blame Trump's loss on conservative apostasy, and everything goes back to normal. For my thoughts on how parties explain their own electoral losses and why that matters, there's this paper.
3) Republicans don't unify around Trump. A splinter group runs an independent campaign with a normal Republican candidate as their standard bearer (splitter, splinter, whatever). Who? I don't know. Maybe Kasich. Hillary wins, and then the party has to deal.
Two ways that plays out: either reforming the nomination process to stop future Trumps (more on that in a future post), or a true party split.
So, yes, it is possible. But let's remember the last time a major party collapsed. It was the Whigs, over slavery. They were replaced as a major party by... the Republicans. That split required a major policy dispute on the central political issue of the time: slavery. There wasn't an abolitionist party, so there was an opening for one.
Is immigration the central issue? How does that play out? If the Democrats are the pro-reform party, though, then the build-the-wall faction needs a party too. They have one now. It's called the Republican Party. There isn't a vacuum to be filled. That makes a complete collapse of the Republican Party difficult because it doesn't follow the script from the Whig collapse.
Remember, the basic party split in this country has survived bigger challenges. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson, a Southern Democrat, passed the Civil Rights Act, and then the Voting Rights Act the next year, starting the transition of the South to Republican hands because Goldwater came out against the Civil Rights Act. Did the parties change? Obviously. But we still had organizational continuity.
Will the Republican Party survive Trump? Probably.
2016 Disclaimer: this, too may go out the window, like every other piece of political wisdom, because 2016 is batshit crazy.