For or Against Trump, GOP Fears Intensifying Civil War If He Loses

The battle between the Republican presidential nominee and House Speaker Paul Ryan raises questions about the party’s future.
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The Republican Divide Deepens: What's Next for the GOP?

A long-simmering struggle between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan erupted this week, but the ultimate winner won't be clear until Nov. 8.

“I wouldn’t want to be in a foxhole with a lot of these people, that I can tell you, including Ryan,” Trump told Fox News’ Bill O'Reilly on Tuesday night, one day after the speaker announced he would not campaign for the nominee. “Especially Ryan.”

If Trump goes down in defeat to Hillary Clinton, as current polling indicates is likely, several questions will arise concerning the Ryan feud. Will cracks emerge in Trump’s loyal following? Will a majority of Republicans, faced with a third consecutive presidential defeat, reassess the wisdom of his candidacy, or will they lay blame at Ryan’s feet? Perhaps most importantly, can the party be healed?

One number may help answer those questions: the percentage of Republicans who vote for Trump on Election Day. Mitt Romney won 93 percent of Republican voters in 2012. John McCain received 90 percent in 2008. Trump is in the ballpark, consolidating the support of 89 percent of Republican voters since the debate Sunday, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll

A top Trump adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the “key is to hold that number” so that Trump’s vision continues to hold sway over the party after the election. His debate strategy to hammer Clinton in intensely personal ways seems to have helped shore up GOP support that sank to just 74 percent in the prior NBC/Journal survey.

The raging civil war between the pro-Trump nativist faction and anti-Trump pluralist wing has left some Republicans wondering if they will ever be able to reconcile, or if the party is on the cusp of a cataclysmic fracture.

“I think there’s a Trump party and there’s a Republican Party. I have a lot of problems squaring the two,” said Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist for Romney’s 2012 campaign and an outspoken opponent of Trump.

Republicans fearful the party is in the midst of a demographic death spiral want to unequivocally disavow unsavory elements that are drawn to Trump’s anti-immigration and protectionist platform, including white nationalists such as David Duke.

“We have to be able to tell the truth about things like the alt-right and the white nationalists and some demagogic messaging around immigration,” said David Kochel, a strategist for Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign. “There is no place in the party for people like David Duke. They should not feel attracted to our message. They should not feel welcome in our party.”

Kochel hoped the party would appeal to the white working-class voters Trump has mobilized with messages that are “aspirational, more future-oriented, and that aren’t based only in grievance and in tearing down the opposition.”


Charlie Sykes, a Wisconsin-based conservative radio host and Trump critic, was pessimistic. He speculated that Trump would start his own TV network after losing the election and influence the party beyond 2016.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of recriminations and the scars are going to take a long time to heal,” he said. “Some of my colleagues think this is black-swan event where Trump leaves and we go back to the way things are going to be.”

The more painful question for the party is whether it is even possible to forge a pluralist conservative majority out of its supporters.

“The conservative consensus that a lot of leaders thought we had: was it completely illusory?” Sykes wondered. “A lot of conservatives had deluded themselves that we were a more coherent cohesive movement than we really were. And that's not going to suddenly go away.”

With Clinton extending her already-significant advantage in the polls, Republicans increasingly fear the presidential election is lost. Trump is betting GOP voters will reward him for taking the fight to party leaders, such as McCain, who pulled support for Trump in the wake of leaked remarks from 2005 that captured Trump boasting that his fame allows him to grope and kiss women without their consent. A spokeswoman said Ryan would focus entirely on protecting the party’s House and Senate majorities in the final weeks of the race.

‘Circular Firing Squad’

When Ryan informed members on a Monday conference call of his decision to no longer defend Trump, about a dozen of them openly protested while one defended Ryan, according to a House Republican member on the call. Another person on the call said the members who spoke out were from deep-red districts.

“Let's stop this circular firing squad,” Representative Bill Huizenga of Michigan said in an interview. “The reality is Donald Trump is our nominee, and Hillary Clinton is not an option.”

Representative Steve King of Iowa said Ryan's move was a “mistake” that makes it “more difficult” for Trump as well as downballot Republicans to win on Nov. 8.

“I believe we are joined at the hip with our nominee. We need to all work together to raise the tide so that it floats all boats,” King said in an interview. Asked if it will exacerbate fissures between the party and its base, he said, “I don't have any doubt.”

Those fissures are the same ones that led voters to nominate Trump against the vigorous objections of the establishment.

King fretted that the divide between the party and its base would widen if Trump loses, and predicted that a House Republican majority would fail to stand up to a President Clinton on issues like opposing immigration and defunding Planned Parenthood, further dispiriting voters.

Indeed, congressional losses for Republicans would likely make the party more ideologically intense, not less so. Those likeliest to lose their races represent swing House districts or liberal-leaning states in the Senate such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Meanwhile, members in the reddest district and states, who typically worry more about primary challenges from the right, are considered safe.

Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor and a top Trump surrogate, said anti-Trump Republicans will be remembered negatively no matter what happens on Election Day.

“They're going to be remembered in one of two ways: Trump wins and they’re now seen as Republicans who abandoned the party, who didn’t see the change that was going on in America,” Giuliani said. “If Trump were to lose, they get a lot of credit for what Hillary Clinton will do to America—make us a more socialist country.”

Stevens had a more fatalistic outlook for the GOP after it learned the wrong lesson from the 2012 election, when President Barack Obama won black, Hispanic, and millennial voters by huge margins. He now worries that pro-Trump forces could blame anti-Trump ones for the coming defeat, meaning hardcore conservatives will say it’s time to nominate one of their own, like Senator Ted Cruz, while others will want a Trump-resisting figure like Senator Ben Sasse or Senator Jeff Flake to take the reins.

“I have no faith that the party is a learning organism,” he said. “After Romney lost we went through the autopsy. It was pretty obvious. And we've done a 180 opposite of what was recommended—with pretty predictable disastrous results.”

—With assistance from Billy House and Kevin Cirilli.