As Donald Trump drifts ever closer towards the Republican presidential nomination, an increasingly vocal GOP faction remains intent on testing Trump's prediction that "you'd have riots" if he's not the party's nominee.
Conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who has positioned himself at the vanguard of the anti-Trump conservative movement, helped organize a gathering of Republican leaders in Washington on Thursday for the purpose of brainstorming solutions to that most vexing of questions: How can Trump be stopped?
The same day, House Speaker Paul Ryan attended a secret meeting in Palm Beach, where Republican megadonors and GOP legislators pondered the same question. Possible answers include rigging the convention's rules to sabotage Trump, tapping Ryan or Mitt Romney at the convention as a last-minute "Republican Jesus," or adopting Bill Kristol's idea to rally the GOP establishment behind an anti-Trump third-party candidate in the general election. None of these options are particularly appealing, but then, neither is Trump.
Trump's delegate lead, combined with the fact that it's taken anti-Trump Republicans until now to organize in earnest, has relegated folks like Erickson and Kristol to entertaining any available option. If you've got a better plan to stop Trump, they'd probably love to hear it.
From the perspective of these anti-Trump Republicans, Trump has hijacked the pure conservative soul of their party and given voice to racists and xenophobes who "damage the brand" and have no place in the party — a group who Republicans have never courted at all, no sir. Whether you buy that or not, a real dilemma threatens to divide the Republican Party: whether to grudgingly cede the nomination to Trump or launch a potentially party-fracturing counterinsurgency that could invite the truly unthinkable — a Hillary Clinton presidency.
The first salvos of this nascent civil war have come in the form of harsh backlash directed at anti-Trump Republicans like Erickson and Kristol. After Erickson floated the possibility of a third-party challenge to Trump, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich dismissed the notion out of hand:
"[T]hese people who the self-important definers of America, who are telling us about this fancy third choice, they make no sense at all. They ought to at least be honest and say to people: 'You know, I’d rather have Hillary Clinton than the Republican nominee.' Because that’s what they’re doing. They ought to just form 'Lost Republicans for Hillary' and be honest about the effect of what they’re doing."
Kristol fired back on Twitter:
Fox News has launched a sustained attack against Erickson and anti-Trump conservatives, as reported by Media Matters. No fewer than six Fox personalities spoke out against Erickson on Thursday. Stacey Dash called Erickson a "Benedict Arnold," while Sean Hannity called the idea of a third-party bid a "suicide mission" and a "circular firing squad."
"I'm not going to go start a third party," said Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. "I'm not going to try to blow up the Republican Party because I didn't get my way. I accept that in an election voters get to make this decision."
True to form, Trump got into the mix on Twitter as well:
This divide in the Republican Party is not going away.The intra-party bickering we've seen this week will only intensify until the Republican National Convention in July. Barring an unexpected surge from Ted Cruz, conservatives against Trump will face one of three options in Cleveland: (a) suck it up and back Trump; (b) try to back-door Trump out of the nomination; or (c) back a third-party candidate.
For some, the convention will represent an opportunity to take a principled conservative stand against Trump. For others, the choice will come down to whichever option they believe has the best chance of blocking Hillary Clinton from the White House. Republican legislators facing credible Democratic challengers in November — or concerned about Trumpist primary challengers in the future — will have their own political calculus to consider when deciding whether to distance themselves from Trump. The idea of a unified Republican front in the general election seems farther-fetched by the day.