People get worked up during presidential campaigns. But the rise of Donald Trump has provoked conservative intellectuals to express their dismay in existential tones. Conservative writers have used terms like unmitigated, unalloyed, potentially unsalvageable disaster to describe a Trump nomination and have declared that they are “fighting for our movement’s existence.” Marco Rubio has made this kind of talk the lingua franca of his once relentlessly chummy campaign, warning that the Republican Party “would split apart” were Trump to prevail. Trump’s opponents have planned for the kinds of dire, schismatic responses not seen in generations of American presidential politics: using the party’s summer convention, normally a scripted infomercial, to wrest the nomination from him. Or even bolting the GOP to start a third party.
The fear inspired by Trump is not merely that he would blow the party’s chances of winning the presidency (though he probably would), or even that he would saddle it with long-term damage among the growing Latino bloc (though he would do that as well). It is that Trump would release the conservative movement’s policy hammerlock on the Republican Party.
The ideological stakes in a fight between conservatives and Trump can be difficult for outsiders to fathom. After all, Trump endorsed Mitt Romney, loathes President Obama, favors a gigantic tax cut, denies global warming, issues ritual praise for Ronald Reagan, and so on. But one place to start — a mystery that reveals a clue — is a recent report in the Times describing frantic efforts to organize an intraparty opposition to Trump. At one meeting, advisers to the Koch brothers, who control a political organization much larger than the actual Republican Party, “characterized Mr. Trump’s record as utterly unacceptable, and highlighted his support for government-funded business subsidies and government-backed health care.”
That may seem odd — Trump’s position on health care is almost indistinguishable from that of the rest of the field. He calls Obamacare a disaster and promises to repeal it and replace it with a sketchily defined alternative that will take care of everybody without any trade-offs. But the basis for the suspicion lies in Trump’s long-ago-renounced support for single-payer health insurance and his more recent promises not to allow people to “die in the streets,” a line that provoked horror in Rubio and Ted Cruz at a February debate. Before Obamacare, those too poor or sick to afford insurance routinely died from illness or suffered horribly. By invoking their suffering, Trump implied that Obamacare did something good.
More important, his history of liberalism and his aversion to letting the uninsured die in the streets imply that Trump lies outside the anti-government consensus that has ruled the party for decades. Among major conservative parties in the democratic world, the U.S. Republican Party is unique in its ideological anti-statism. Conservative parties elsewhere accept universal health insurance, the idea that government might play a role in weaning an economy off fossil fuels, and the general budgetary principle that tax revenue needs to bear some long-term relation to expenditures. Trump does not challenge anti-government orthodoxy frontally. Instead, he evades it. He denounces government for being not too big but too dumb, and his solution frequently involves not shrinking it but putting a smart person in charge (himself). Trump’s cult of personality implies the heretical possibility that government could be made to work.
The Republican Party has, for decades, been organized around a stable hierarchy of priorities, the highest of which is to reduce taxes for the wealthiest Americans, i.e., “job creators,” and loosen regulation of business. As long as their party is anchored by its economic consensus, conservatives tolerate wide disagreement on social issues. Some Republicans want to expand the party’s coalition by taking more liberal stances on issues like gay marriage, immigration, and racism in the criminal-justice system. Other Republicans still rail against gays and immigrants. Representative Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, has ties to the white-supremacist movement and once described himself as “David Duke without the baggage.” Nothing Trump has said about immigrants, the Ku Klux Klan, or anything else violates the GOP’s baseline standards. The problem is that he implicitly proposes to invert the party’s hierarchy, prioritizing its right-wing social resentments while tolerating ambiguity on economics. And his popularity suggests that maybe average Republicans aren’t maniacally obsessed with shrinking government after all.
By making race and nationalism the text rather than the subtext of Republican politics, Trump threatens not only the party’s agenda but the self-conception of its intellectual class. The conservative movement seized control of the Republican Party momentarily in 1964 during Barry Goldwater’s candidacy, and completely in the decades to come. It succeeded in large part because many whites, especially in the working class, identified the GOP as the party that would protect their security and tax dollars from black people. Conservatives prefer to deny this history. “Liberals may have been fond of claiming that Republicans were all closet bigots and that tax cuts were a form of racial prejudice, but the accusation rang hollow because the evidence for it was so tendentious,” wrote The Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens recently, citing as counterevidence William F. Buckley’s break with a small sect of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists to help found the modern conservative movement. “Not anymore.” Now, he said, Trump had besmirched the movement’s long record of racial innocence. In a similar spirit, the Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who has spearheaded the party’s anti-Trump backlash, recently lamented Trump’s refusal to immediately disavow the Klan: “A generation of work with African-Americans, slow, patient work … we’ve pissed that away because of Donald Trump in one day.” In reality, Buckley spent the civil-rights movement mocking Martin Luther King Jr. and defending white supremacy and spent the ’80s defending apartheid in South Africa. The Republican Party’s “work with African-Americans” is mostly focused on making it harder for them to vote, and Republican presidential candidates’ share of the black vote has declined from the mid-teens in the ’70s to the mid–single digits in the last couple of elections.
Trump has also exposed another, equally deep insecurity among right-wing intellectuals: the fear that their movement appeals to rubes. The conservative movement’s tightening grip over the Republican Party has coincided with its elevation of leaders incapable of explaining their policies cogently. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin all drew the disdain of liberal elites for their reliance on simplistic aphorisms and poor grasp of detail, humiliating conservative intellectuals, who defended the keen minds of their heroes. Whether or not Donald Trump the human being is intelligent, there’s no question that “Donald Trump,” presidential candidate, is not. His entire campaign operates well below the level of rational thought — it’s all boasting, absurd promises, repetitive sloganeering, and abuse. Just as email scammers intentionally salt their messages with typos in order to weed out anyone educated enough to see through their swindle, allowing them to focus on the most gullible, Trump seems to consciously repel anyone possessed of a brain. When he says he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any support, or that he appeals to “the poorly educated,” he is broadcasting his contempt for his supporters.
The secret fear lying beneath Rubio’s accurate depiction of Trump as a “con artist” is that Republican voters are easy marks. The Republican Party is constructed as a machine: Into one end are fed the atavistic fears of the white working class as grist, and out the other end pops The Wall Street Journal editorial-page agenda as the finished product. Trump has shown movement conservatives how terrifyingly rickety that machine is and how easily it can be seized from them by a demagogue and repurposed toward some other goal.
*This article appears in the March 7, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.