Behold the Nominee: Will the GOP Embrace Its Trump Nightmare or Walk Away?

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Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Holds Indiana Campaign Rally
A nightmare in orange.Photo: Luke Sharrett/?????? 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP

Well, so much for suspense. The networks called Indiana for Donald Trump about five seconds after the polls closed, and within two hours, Ted Cruz announced he was suspending his campaign. Trump is winning a majority of the vote and will likely win all 57 delegates.

Even if a few delegates stray back across the line, this win clinched the nomination for Trump. He will now have well over 1,000 bound delegates, which is less than 200 from what he needs to make it a lock. And that’s without the unbound delegates he definitely has in Pennsylvania and is sure to win in West Virginia on May 10; or the share of proportionally allocated delegates he’s going to win in Oregon on May 17, in Washington on May 24, and in New Mexico on June 7; or the 51 winner-take-all delegates long conceded to him in New Jersey on June 7; or the many delegates he will win in winner-take-most California on June 7. So Cruz’s surrender is entirely rational. And, beginning tonight, we will find out if a shocked Republican Party puts up any further resistance to its new barbarian master.

The first thing to watch for is whether there is any tangible upsurge of interest in the one tactic that could yet deny Trump the nomination: Curly Haugland’s radical scheme for unbinding delegates from the primary and caucus results. If not (and it’s most unlikely given the certain backlash that would arise from GOP voters), then comes the excruciating process of Republican party leaders and elected officials getting fully or partly or barely onboard. 

Is there any precedent we can look to in determining how united or divided Republicans may become? Yes and no. An awful lot of Republican elected officials either refused to endorse Barry Goldwater in 1964 or kept their distance; the year was still a down-ballot bloodbath. Plenty of Democrats kept their distance from George McGovern in 1972, and their party did pretty well (even picking up Senate seats) despite the presidential disaster, but that’s at a time when millions of Democrats, especially in the South, routinely split tickets. We saw the same thing happen in 1984 when Fritz Mondale was losing 49 states. But ticket-splitting has become steadily less common in recent years.

What makes 2016 potentially more like 1964 than other landslide year is that Republicans aren’t going to run away from Trump simply because they think he’s going to lose. Just as many pro-civil-rights Republicans felt a moral obligation — or just an obligation to the future of the party — to stay away from Goldwater in ’64, many Republicans with varying degrees of ideological separation from Trump may keep their distance from him, no matter how he’s doing in the polls at any one moment. It’s unlikely to be a phenomenon so organized as to spur a serious third-party or independent candidacy (although some opinion leaders may endorse the Libertarian or Constitution Party candidates as a protest). And I doubt we’ll see too many Republican endorsements of the Democratic ticket. But you can expect a lot — a lot — of talk about the GOP regrouping in 2018 and beyond.

It’s always possible, of course, that Republicans will unite around Trump just enough, and that he will perform just well enough, to make this feel like a normal general election. But let’s face it: There’s never been a major-party nominee with his background, his temperament, his notoriety, the sheer air of vengeful zeal he inspires in supporters, and the fearful determination he inspires in opponents. Add the most polarizing candidacy in memory to a pre-heated atmosphere of partisan polarization and fundamentals that are relatively neutral, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Trump keeps winning right through November. The man represents the absolute opposite of the “safe change” an “out party” must normally offer to win over an electorate tired of, but not necessarily angry at, the incumbent party. And he provides almost no leverage for exploiting divisions among Democrats. 

It will be interesting and perhaps alarming to see what Trump does to keep us all hedging our bets. His first trick must be to convince Republicans to buy into his act when they convene in Cleveland to consider the sinister work of their primary voters.