America confronts two disturbing prospects. The first is that Hillary Clinton will beat Donald Trump in November. The second, even more alarming, is that she won't. How Republicans face those possibilities will tell us much about whether the party has anything left to say in its own behalf.
Take former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R). When Trump proposed banning entry to the U.S. by all Muslims late last year, Gilmore tweeted, "Trump's fascist talk drives all minorities from GOP." This was a good response. An even better one would have been: "Trump's fascist talk is un-American."
That is a crucial difference, as it turns out: the difference between expedience (the GOP needs minorities to win) and principle (religious discrimination is wrong). Calculations change with changing circumstances, but principles don't— and in the past few months circumstances have changed remarkably.
With Trump's presidential nomination all but assured, Gilmore has now announced that he will not only vote for Trump but will even lead voter-registration efforts on Trump's behalf. This puts him in the camp that has been called, with some justification, Vichy Republicans: those who, for reasons of expedience, have embraced the occupation of the GOP by neo-fascist elements.
The term "fascist" gets tossed around far too much, but it fits Trump remarkably well: Trumpism lacks a coherent political philosophy; Trump changes his views more often than he changes shirts, and his supporters simply don't care. Rather, his popularity is built on the appeal of (1) a strong man who (2) endorses mob violence and who (3) promises to restore a nation to greatness by (4) being tough, (5) demonizing minorities, and (6) erecting barriers to stop the free movement of both people and goods. Trump's supporters have a disturbing tendency toward racism and anti-Semitism. The parallels go on and on.
Yet a lot of Republican leaders are reconciling themselves to Trump—including some (such as former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Sen. John Cornyn) who also once expressed deep misgivings about him. They likely reason that it makes better sense to jump on the bandwagon than get run over by it. And that politics is after all a team sport. And that just because their guy didn't win the nomination doesn't mean they should take their ball and go home. Few conservatives would approve such rationalizations if tendered by Democrats.
Those rationalizations are also short-sighted, as Bret Stephens explained succinctly in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago: "Conservatives can survive liberal administrations, especially those whose predictable failures lead to healthy restorations—think Carter, then Reagan. What isn't survivable is a Republican president who is part Know Nothing, part Smoot-Hawley and part John Birch. The stain of a Trump administration would cripple the conservative cause for a generation."
That is the expedience argument against Trump. Another conservative, the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, laid out the principled one with bracing clarity: "There needs to be a separation between those who put stock in personal character and truthfulness and those who do not; between those who babble inanities and those who insist on intellectual rigor; between those who lack simple decency and respect for fellow Americans and those who believe our political system must function without threat of violence, bigoted slurs and lies. The dividing line is now crystal clear. To one side stands an angry nativist mob and to the other men and women of decent character and honorable purpose. Choose sides. You cannot be in both camps."
Choosing correctly, however, means conceding the election to Hillary Clinton, a congenital liar and big-government ideologue whose reign would not be good for the country—and that is a hard pill to swallow for diehard Republicans. Those diehards should hunt down a copy of "Isaiah's Job," a 1936 essay by Albert Jay Nock about the ways in which the search for "mass acceptance and mass approval" adulterates the "prophetic message."
At the beginning of the essay Nock retells the story of the prophet Isaiah, who is sent to deliver a message—even though "it won't do any good":
"Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job—in fact, he had asked for it—but the prospect put a new face on the situation. It raised the obvious question: Why, if all that were so—if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start— was there any sense in starting it? 'Ah,' the Lord said, 'you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.' "
No matter who wins in November, principled, small-government Republicans will lose. The only question is whether the party will give them a reason to rebuild the GOP—or abandon it for good.
This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.