As Donald Trump made the transition from Republican presidential frontrunner to presumptive Republican presidential nominee, one of the more common words in GOP circles has been “unity.” As in, “How in the world will the party achieve anything resembling ‘unity’ with this nativist demagogue at the top of the Republican ticket?”
For his part, Trump has said, on multiple occasions, that he can and will bring the party together. Yesterday on ABC, however, the Republican candidate, no doubt aware of the broader circumstances, suggested that unifying the party may be an overrated goal.
“Does [the party] have to be unified? I’m very different than everybody else, perhaps, that’s ever run for office. I actually don’t think so,” Trump told George Stephanopoulos in an interview that will air Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week.” […]“I think it would be better if it were unified, I think it would be – there would be something good about it. But I don’t think it actually has to be unified in the traditional sense,” Trump said.
It’s an unexpected posture, borne of conditions outside of Trump’s control. Less than a week after wrapping up the nomination, the Republican candidate has stopped looking for ways to bring the party together and started looking for ways to justify intra-party strife as a tolerable inconvenience – not because Trump wants to, but because so many in the party are repulsed by his candidacy.
The New York Times added over the weekend, “Since a landslide victory in Indiana made him the presumptive Republican nominee, Mr. Trump has faced a shunning from party leaders that is unprecedented in modern politics. Mr. Trump has struggled to make peace with senior lawmakers and political donors whom he denounced during the Republican primaries, and upon whose largess he must now rely.”
In a fitting twist, Republicans are divided over the nature of their divisions. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, became one of the most notable GOP Trump endorsers Friday, despite Trump’s condemnation of the Bush/Cheney administration’s handling of 9/11 and the war in Iraq.
Cheney probably wasn’t thrilled about extending his support, but he’s a Republican, Trump’s the presumptive Republican nominee, and apparently that’s the end of the discussion. For the former vice president, partisan considerations are, for all intents and purposes, the only consideration. (The fact that Trump is a cheerleader for torture probably helped tilt the scales for Cheney.)
But the former vice president’s announcement was striking in part because so many other national Republican leaders are moving in the exact opposite direction.
Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush have both said they will stay out of the 2016 race and withhold their official support from their party’s nominee. Jeb Bush, a former Trump rival, signed a pledge last year promising to support the GOP’s 2016 candidate, but he’s since decided to break that promise and oppose Trump.
I haven’t yet seen a comprehensive list of every notable Republican officeholder who has vowed to withhold support for Trump, but as best as I can tell, the list would include at least three sitting governors (Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker, Illinois’ Bruce Rauner, and Maryland’s Larry Hogan), three sitting U.S. senators (South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, Nevada’s Dean Heller), and 10 or so U.S. House members. If we include former officials, the list grows much longer.
And then, of course, there’s 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who’s vowed to oppose Trump, and his former running mate, current House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who said Thursday he’s not yet ready to decide either way. Many more in the GOP have offered grudging support along the lines of, “I’ll back my party’s nominee, but let’s not call it an ‘endorsement,’ and for the love of God, please don’t make me say his name out loud.”
It’s tempting to look for some kind of modern parallel for a dynamic like this, but there really isn’t one. The only thing that comes close was when far-right Southern “Dixiecrats,” outraged by Democratic support for civil rights, broke off in 1948 and 1968, en route to becoming Republicans.
Those examples probably don’t offer much of a parallel here – or at least GOP officials have to hope not.
The more immediate question, of course, is whether a party divided against itself can stand. According to Trump, unity is an unnecessary luxury, though if you’re thinking this sounds like wishful thinking, you’re not alone. Given the presumptive Republican nominee’s unpopularity, Trump has very little margin for error, and having a sizable chunk of his party express contempt for his campaign poses an existential electoral risk. Winning primaries in a divided party is vastly easier than what Trump will face in November.
There’s a school of thought, of course, that says all of this strife will eventually pass. Emotions are still raw – the last contested primary was less than a week ago – and the argument goes that wayward Republicans will “come home” by the fall.
In a typical election cycle, this model would certainly apply, but this isn’t a normal year; Trump isn’t a normal candidate; and the scope and scale of the fissures in Republican politics are without modern precedent.