Suppose the Republican Party’s elites could go a year back in time and act with perfect foresight and perfect coordination. (At the risk of making this hypothetical even more outlandish, let’s also grant them functioning strategic brains.) What would they do to avoid their current predicament? Probably they would band together to send a unified message to their voters against Donald Trump. If they had all banded together against Trump at the outset, when Trump still had staggeringly high unfavorable ratings among Republican voters, they could have prevented him from gaining traction. Instead the party splintered, many of them openly encouraging his rise out of the belief that Trump would pick off their rivals for them. When other Republican candidates did go after Trump, they did it one by one, like movie-villain ninja henchmen, and were each bullied and eliminated while the others stood aside and watched. Republicans faced a collective action problem they failed to solve.
Now that Trump has won the nomination, Republicans face a similar kind of dilemma: how to prevent his unpopularity from infecting the rest of the party. But this is a problem that presents no clear solution. Indeed, it is more like two dilemmas, neither of which can be addressed without worsening the other.
A Republican strategist who has been working to block Trump’s nomination, speaking to Rosie Gray, summed up the party’s two strategic imperatives — but without recognizing that it would be impossible to solve both. First, Republicans need to prevent a potential landslide at the presidential level from dragging down other candidates. (“We’re gonna look at the down-ballot races, we’re gonna look at what states might need a strong never Trump movement in order to protect congressional races.”) And second, they need to ensure that Trump does not redefine the party’s image in a long-term way. (“We have to make sure that Donald Trump, in his fleeting six months left as a Republican, that he can’t permanently damage the party’s credibility.”) The brand problem is the possibility that associating Trump with Republicanism would cause some voters — especially younger ones new to the political system — to identify as Democrats over the long run.
Consider these dilemmas separately. The down-ballot issue is itself a kind of collective action problem. If Trump suffers a wipeout, he is likely to sink Republicans in other races. The key to avoiding a wipeout is to normalize Trump — send the message that he is a regular Republican in good standing who will carry out normal Republican policies, not a dangerous, ignorant, bigoted, pathologically dishonest freak. That message (if successful) could coax enough Republicans to the polls to support him to lift him into the upper-40s, a result that would (at least) protect the Republican House majority.
But the incentive for individual Republicans in vulnerable districts is different. They need to distance themselves from their party’s presidential nominee. The more Republican candidates reject Trump, though, the more voters get the message that Trump is not a respectable candidate, dragging down his support everywhere else. The best thing for any individual candidate on the ballot is to be the one Republican who opposes Trump. The best thing for all of the Republican candidates is for the party to stand behind him.
Now consider the party brand issue. Republicans have very good reasons to try to quarantine their party identity from Trump, who embodies some of their most odious stereotypes: He’s a racist, misogynist bully who identifies wealth with virtue. They need to signal to voters that Trump lies outside the normal Republican Party, and that the real Republican Party is essentially in exile through November. But doing so compounds the near-term election disaster, for the reasons cited above. Repudiating Trump will drive down his numbers and cause Republican voters to stay home, and likewise alienate Trump’s many Republican enthusiasts.
How will Republicans handle this delicate question? So far, they are attempting to straddle. New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte says she will support Trump but will not “endorse” him — a Talmudic distinction so exquisitely incomprehensible it’s impossible to imagine her sustaining it. Maine senator Susan Collins proclaims she will back Trump if he stops “gratuitous insults” — a formulation that sets her up to be asked every time Trump insults somebody if she considers it gratuitous. There will be no plan, no coordination, just every Republican waking up every day and trying to make it through the next news cycle. In other words, the same response to Trump’s candidacy in the first place.