In one sense, and one sense only, the events since Donald Trump became his party’s presumptive nominee have been reassuring. The ensuing weeks made clear that Trump has absolutely no idea how to run a presidential campaign and lacks the most rudimentary grasp of its basic elements, like having a reasonably sized staff, adequate funds, and knowledge of which states to campaign in (he cannot be disabused of his belief that he can win in overwhelmingly Democratic California and New York, a state where he has actually spent some of his sparse funds on a dedicated pollster). A Trump victory is plausible only in the case of a gigantic external shock that overwhelms his incompetence: the onset of a recession, perhaps, or an indictment of Hillary Clinton. On the other hand — and it is a big other hand, with long fingers—we have learned that if those or other nightmares do transpire and Trump prevails, his presidency would be far more dangerous than seemed imaginable not long ago. A Trump presidency has become a lower-probability but higher-impact event, its risk profile looking less like another George W. Bush presidency (unlikely; very bad) and more like a gigantic asteroid striking the Earth (quite unlikely; catastrophic).
What has been revealed since Trump’s nomination became inevitable is the nature of the power relation between Trump and other figures in his party. In late February — to take one time-capsule moment of mainstream conservative thought — the columnist Ross Douthat predicted, “If Trump is the nominee, neither Rubio nor Cruz will endorse him.” By spring, Rubio had indeed endorsed Trump, and it is just a matter of time before Cruz follows suit. Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who had tried to organize a super-PAC to stop Trump during the primaries, has since declared that he is organizing one to help elect him. Trump’s Republican opponents had once vowed to wage a vigorous independent right-wing campaign against him, becoming a kind of Republican Party in exile, perhaps led by Nebraska senator Ben Sasse or even Mitt Romney. By the end of May, a leader was identified: David French, a blogger for National Review with no experience in elected office and who withdrew from consideration shortly thereafter. Officials who had once called Trump “a madman who must be stopped” (Bobby Jindal), less qualified to be president than “a speck of dirt” (Rand Paul), and “our Mussolini” (Congressman Chris Stewart) have since endorsed him.
The consolation of endorsing your Mussolini is that you figure at least he’ll be your Mussolini. A version of this scenario inspired Republican leaders who nervously endorsed their new leader on the premise that the party would restrain his barbarism. “The House can be a driver of policy ideas,” Speaker Paul Ryan noted, insisting that “when I feel the need to, I’ll continue to speak my mind.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised, “He’ll have a White House counsel. There will be others who point out there’s certain things you can do and you can’t do.”
Instead, the disintegration and debasement of his internal enemies, many of whom submitted after he belittled them, seems to have only confirmed Trump’s confidence in the soundness of his methods. His megalomania has soared to new heights. “I will give you everything,” he told a crowd of bikers over Memorial Day weekend. “I will give you what you’ve been looking for, for 50 years. I’m the only one.” Here he was suggesting he might sic government lawyers on the corporate holdings of Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, which had covered Trump in ways that displeased the candidate. There he was launching a racist tirade against the “Mexican” judge (born in Indiana) in the fraud trial of Trump University.
The latter comment created a minor crisis for his colleagues. Trump’s bigotry was so unvarnished, and its target so crucial to his party’s long-term demographic survival, that few members of his party could excuse it. Ryan, appearing at an unfortunately timed event in Washington, D.C.’s poor and heavily black Anacostia neighborhood to promote his party’s alleged concern for minorities, conceded that Trump’s slur was “sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.” However, Ryan insisted, “at the end of the day this is about ideas. This is about moving our agenda forward.” Ergo, his endorsement of Trump stood. Later, Ryan clarified that his denunciation applied to Trump’s statements but not to Trump himself, whose values he was not judging. (“I don’t know what’s in his heart.”) It was just a thing Trump said — many times — for some reason nobody in his party could figure out.
Republican voters, on the other hand, were judging Trump’s diatribe. And far more favorably. A poll found that, by a three-to-one margin, Republicans deemed Trump’s comments not racist. Once again, for all the nervousness he has engendered among the conservative elite, the people who vote Republican side with Trump. Unlike Ryan, whose job approval is underwater among Republicans, Trump is a popular and almost unifying figure among the rank and file. He has already secured support from 85 percent of Republican voters — nearly the same number as Romney had soon after he’d become the presumptive nominee, and slightly above the levels enjoyed by John McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2000. Ryan’s clarification that Trump’s racism would not preclude his endorsement was a confession that Trump holds the whip in their relationship. Ryan’s policy proposals — deregulating Wall Street, reducing taxes on the highest earners, cutting social spending — have never attracted voters to his party. What has attracted them are the social values Trump represents. Ryan’s goals require Trump’s voters. The converse does not hold true.
This dynamic would be even more pronounced under President Trump than with Candidate Trump. History suggests that the most important limits on a president’s abuse of power come from the objections of his fellow partisans. When Franklin Roosevelt proposed to pack the Supreme Court with additional seats that he would fill, conservative Democrats rose in outrage and blocked him. Nixon was driven from office in large part by the dissent of Republicans like John Dean (who testified against him) and Barry Goldwater (who told him his support had collapsed).
But these events took place in a very different political atmosphere, among ideologically heterodox parties with deep traditions of bipartisanship. Trump would ascend to the presidency in a polarized country. The inevitable conflict over his abuses would take the form of a partisan will to power. And yet if he wins the presidency, Trump will own the party he is currently leasing, and his influence over its members will spread. He will enjoy not only the trappings and formal powers of the office but also the heartfelt, cult-of-personality loyalties that presidents command from their supporters (which run especially deep on the right wing, with its elevated concentration of authoritarian personalities).
Trump’s authoritarianism is one of the few consistent aspects of his worldview, expressed over many years and through his various jaunts across the ideological spectrum. He has praised leaders in Russia, China, and North Korea for crushing dissent. He regards all criticism as corrupt and illegitimate. For all the fearful commentary this has inspired, we have mostly contemplated Trump in his familiar context as a bellowing tabloid character or renegade candidate, and not in his prospective role as the leader of a governing party. When (not if) a President Trump sets out to crush his enemies, tens of millions of Republicans will thrill to his cause and demand he prevail.
*This article appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.