Donald Trump has broken the Republican party.
At a presidential townhall last night hosted by CNN, Trump refused to say that he would support the GOP nominee, whoever he is, insisting that he had been "treated very unfairly." Ted Cruz and John Kasich, the other two GOP candidates still in the race, also declined to make the promise.
The joint refusal signaled the death of the pledge to support the nominee, which was pushed on the candidates by the Republican National Committee, and something more than that as well. It's a sign that the Republican party is no longer functioning as a coherent unit—that the party, which is supposed to be a vehicle for unifying and channeling political energy, is no longer capable of doing so. It has become a force for disorganization and disunity. The party, which has long struggled with dysfunction, has totally fallen apart. So now the question is: What's next?
One possibility is that nothing much will change, that GOP leadership will continue as planned, treating Trump as a storm to be weathered rather than a structural problem to be addressed. But as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes in a retort to an unsigned piece by The Wall Street Journal's editorial board, that is not so much a strategy as a willful blindness to reality, a refusal not only to reckon with the party's problems but to admit that they exist. The leave-it-be approach would continue the party on the path of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan and endless income tax cuts and hawkish maximalism.
But if things are to change, then the question is how. Trump does not offer much in the way of specific guidance. His campaign is not animated by specific policy proposals, but by an inchoate anger and frustration, a brooding sense of economic anxiety and cultural dislocation that he absorbs and channels into support for him, and whatever it is he does and says on any given day. What Trump's success suggests, however, is that candidates need not stick strictly to the GOP playbook in order to be successful. He has ripped up the rulebook, but he has not provided a new one.
What the GOP needs, then, are new political models—candidates who embody what the Republican party could be, and whose attitudes and emphases suggest possible paths forward. For that, there are worse places to start than a trio of GOP senators: Jeff Flake of Arizona, Mike Lee of Utah, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, each of whom embodies a distinct kind of Republicanism, and a possible response to the problems facing the party.
The Republican party of today faces three main pressures, broadly speaking: an external demographic and cultural pressure to be more open and inclusive, a (mostly) internal economic pressure to be more sensitive to the needs and interests of the working class, and an ideological pressure, driven by parts of the party's base, to be more rigorous in its adherence to limited government principle.
The careers of Flake, Lee, and Paul each offer possible responses to at least one of these challenges. Flake is a former conservative think tank chief and one of the GOP's leading voices in favor of trade and immigration, a sun-belt fiscal conservative who has fought party orthodoxy on U.S. relations with Cuba. Lee is arguably the Senate GOP's most effective policy entrepreneur, the backer of a tax reform plan the merits of which are debatable but which is at least intended to prioritize easing the tax burden on middle class families as well as one of the Republican party's most prominent voices on sentencing and criminal justice reform. And, setting aside the mistakes and compromises of his presidential campaign, Paul is perhaps the party's most effective internal critic, a spokesperson for a more humble foreign policy and an advocate for personal privacy, as well as one of the few GOP leaders who has at least attempted, however awkwardly, to expand the GOP's demographic base.
None of these candidates fully and perfectly addresses all of the GOP's current pressure points, of course. And all of them certainly frustrate both conservatives and libertarians in any number of ways, both for their deviations from the party line, and for the ways they continue to adhere to it.
Ideally, the party would combine attributes of all three, becoming both more libertarian and more populist, more focused on its working class base and more inclusive and open to outsiders at home and abroad, more ideologically consistent and more friendly to policy experimentation.
That would require compromise, of course. The party would certainly be more socially conservative than most libertarians would like, and would probably be more open on immigration than many of the conservative rank-and-file would prefer. But it could also offer something to both, and, with some effort, channel some of the rage and alienation that is currently fueling Trump's campaign into something more productive and more unifying.
What these candidates share, broadly speaking, is an openness to bipartisan cooperation that is not conventionally centrist, a staunch and serious conservatism that is not entirely rigid when it comes to policy, and a focus on openness and inclusion, on expanding the party's appeal beyond its base—or, the very least, on opening up the lines of communication with people the party tends to ignore. And while all of them favor tax cuts of some form or another (they are, in the end, still Republicans), they do no see tax policy—and in particular cuts to marginal income tax rates—as the be-all, end-all of domestic policy. And yet they are all also staunch fiscal hawks, at least relative to the typical GOP Senator.
All of them, in other words, are at least partially untethered from the Republican party's past. And as a result, all of them offer at least a glimpse at what a revived GOP could look like—models for a post-Trump party, and, critically, a post-Bush and post-Reagan party as well, one that might even challenge Democrats (who have their own issues) in new and interesting ways too.
If there is a single saving grace to Donald Trump's ugly, embarassing, wrecking ball run through the GOP, this may be it. He's wrecked the party, but he's also provided an opportunity—maybe—to save it from itself.