Rep. David Jolly, a Florida Republican Congressman who wants to replace Marco Rubio in the Senate, took to the House floor yesterday to call on Trump to drop out. Leaders of the state party in all three of the early primary states took the extraordinary and controversial step of denouncing Trump this week. The RNC dropped him from their planned fundraiser. House Speaker Paul Ryan had a succinct reply to questions about Trump’s antics, “this is not conservatism.”
None of these moves are likely to dampen Trump’s poll numbers. In fact, in response to the New Hampshire chairwoman’s courageous stand there are growing calls for her resignation. And while most of the major candidates have distanced themselves, Ted Cruz, who is running an increasingly close second, is standing by Trump. Resistance from established party leadership is not dimming Trump’s prospects.
What separates Trump from the oddball candidates in prior campaigns is the weakness of the party infrastructure, his relative competence, independence from the usual financing demands, and his unfiltered appeal to racism. In short, he isn’t going away, which seems likely to force a major schism in the GOP.
Trump cannot win the nomination of the GOP for two reasons. First, as we are already seeing the party will not unify behind him, meaning the only route to a win is brute numbers – massive wins in primaries and caucuses sufficient to land an overwhelming delegate majority. And that raises the second problem – he hasn’t built the grassroots infrastructure necessary to secure convention delegates. He can win primaries and lose the delegate count.
So we have an ideologically unacceptable candidate who has built a formidable base of support who isn’t going away and will almost certainly run a devastating independent campaign if he isn’t somehow mollified. If his ideology was truly unique it might be possible to isolate him. His message isn’t at odds with the party, it is merely unfiltered. Donald Trump is stating out loud what far too many Republicans in positions of power have been saying behind closed doors. That’s why we can’t make him go away.
The Republican Party does not have leadership capable of navigating this storm. The crack up has begun.
What does it look like when a modern political party falls apart? We have some examples, at least at the local level. Perhaps one of the finest is the split that tore apart the Republican Party in Houston’s Harris County in the 90’s. For a few years the party technically had two chairmen after religious fundamentalist Steven Hotze led an insurgency to remove Chairwoman Betsy Lake.
What happened in Houston was relatively localized, with only a few other examples across the South. That fight was part of the wave of Dixiecrats fleeing the Democratic Party over its declining support for white supremacy. Houston became a battleground because unlike most of the rest of the South, the city already had a fairly well-developed Republican infrastructure aligned with the party’s national character. Across most of the rest of the Jim Crow Belt this takeover occurred with little resistance.
There has been very little formal research into what happened in Houston, but Google Books preserves a fine account from Professor John M. Bruce in the book God at the Grassroots: The Christian Right in the 1994 Elections. As the fight over Donald Trump plays out we’re likely to see the kind of fight that occurred in Houston spreading across the country.
For those of us who still hope to see a Republican Party that embraces reality and promotes sane, healthy politics, early evidence of a split from the white nationalist fringe is exciting. Let’s hope this conflict matures.
Former Houston Press and Houston Chronicle journalist Tim Fleck delivered some colorful coverage of the fight for the Harris County GOP in the 90’s. Here are a few of the highlights:
And from Jim Simmon: