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How (Some) Republicans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Trump

May 4, 2016, 5:00 PM UTC

With Sen. Ted Cruz’s concession speech last night, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus finally got there: Donald Trump “will be presumptive GOP nominee,” he tweeted. “We all need to unite and focus on defeating Hillary Clinton.” He even added the hashtag #NeverClinton—a pained echo of the failed #NeverTrump cry.

The roster of those falling in line is already breathtaking, in kind if not yet in scope. Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose imprisonment and torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam Trump mocked, is on board. So is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who after the far lesser depredations of the 2012 election cycle urged that Republicans “stop being the stupid party.” Even that poster-boy moderate, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, on Friday endorsed the decidedly immoderate media and licensing mogul.

Loyal Reagan advisor Bruce Bartlett tweeted his reaction: “Alleged wanker moderate Jon Huntsman throws in with Trump. Pathetic.” But that last word applies to the predicament staring down GOP leaders around the country as much as to Huntsman himself. Those feeling pressure to finally pick a side must still thread a very tight political needle. Here are some major camps and their strategies for coping, co-opting, or keeping up the fight.

Pacifists. While some see Huntsman as one of GOP operative Rick Wilson’s “Vichy Republicans,” others see a man trying to avoid carnage in Cleveland. One report attributes such calls to “fear of a contested—and potentially very ugly—convention in July.” Huntsman himself said simply, “We’ve had enough intraparty fighting.”

Perhaps such figures see the 60% of Republicans who support other candidates as less prone to riot than the 40% who’ve voted for Trump to date. As President Obama quipped on Saturday, “The guy wanted to give his hotel business a boost, and now we are praying that Cleveland makes it through July.”

Provisionals. Those torn between nominal loyalty to the Republican ticket and their own political values and futures have issued a flurry of signing statements to justify their lukewarm endorsements of the presumptive nominee. “I don’t think he’s the best qualified, I don’t think he’s the one most likely to be successful, but I would vote for him over Hillary Clinton,” said Jindal. Political scientist Michael Bitzer calls moves like this “a tacit acknowledgment that [Trump] is their party’s nominee, but that they will go their separate way when it comes to campaign strategy.”


Fellow travelers. At least some Republicans—even a few, like Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who hold elected office—are true believers who insist, “We need a chief executive, not a chief politician.” Collins initially backed Jeb Bush, but in February became the first House member to advise voters that now, “it is the Donald Trump train they need to be on.” The representative of the long-depressed Buffalo-Rochester corridor was lonely then, but he’s getting more company by the day.

Opportunists. For others, neither principle nor policies can easily explain their awkward path to fealty. None has been more roundly mocked than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose naked maneuvering for personal advantage could have justified his wife’s eye roll as much as anything Trump might say.

Sen. Marco Rubio risks falling into this camp. His gutter descent was intended to fight Trump’s fire with fire, but instead abruptly ended his own once-surging campaign after losing his home state of Florida in March. After swapping insults with Trump on everything from integrity to genitalia, the man with no job come January recently decided the front-runner has “improved significantly”—and conventional wisdom pegs him as a top Trump pick for vice president.

Realpolitikers. Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove are prime examples of establishment pillars who have approached Trump with a pedagogical olive branch in one hand and a spanking whip in the other. This “good cop-bad cop” mien might position them as advisors or running mates should Trump prevail as expected.

While personal ambition factors prominently with such figures, so does clear-eyed odds making. Select party elders like these might win forgiveness from fellow conservatives in the interests of maintaining decent relations with—and a share of mature influence on—a nominee whom most now consider inevitable.

Haters…of Cruz. Some boldface names found their way to Trump as a bank shot off of Ted Cruz. Former House Speaker John Boehner’s lines about Cruz as “Lucifer in the flesh” and “the most miserable S.O.B. I’ve ever worked with” won laughs from the crowd in California. But they reaffirmed to others his subordination of conservative principles to personal relationships. With their rationale for Trump rendered obsolete by Cruz’s departure, such leaders may well keep mum rather than offer new explanations.

Comeuppancers. A few quarters that have consistently thrown flags on the field of Trump’s policies and temperament (and hinted strongly at a preference for the likes of Rubio or Ohio Gov. John Kasich) are now willing to see the chickens come home to roost. The Wall Street Journal argued yesterday morning against a third-party run by a conservative ticket, writing that it would risk “muddling the message from a Trump defeat.” Trump supporters, the board insists, “need to see the consequences of their primary vote” rather than find a ready “excuse” for a Trump defeat in a vote-splitting challenge.

#NeverTrumpers. #NeverTrump has proved itself a faction without traction, and its tactical role might now be limited to down-ballot protection and platform mischief. But its principles are safeguarded by some of the most revered voices on the right. The heirs to William F. Buckley will bide their time, until 2024 if need be.

Some even overtly prefer Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton to Trump, at least for 2016. In the words of George Will: “Donald Trump’s damage to the Republican party, although already extensive, has barely begun… Republicans can help Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, or someone else who has honorably recoiled from Trump, confine [Hillary] to a single term.” Longstanding GOP campaign manager Mark Salter’s viral message? “I’m with her.”

Minor collaborators. In the bleak histories from which the term “collaborator” is drawn, this is often cast as the weak but broad class that makes or breaks the shift from resistance to acceptance. “People are realizing that he’s the likely nominee,” former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said of Trump. “The hysteria has died down, and the range of emotion is from resignation to enthusiasm.” (Irony alert: the headline for that story read, “GOP Elites Resigned to Donald Trump.”)

One might put the likes of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in this category for praising Trump while nominally endorsing Cruz. “Very weak,” Trump said of Pence. Many Republicans will feel similarly pulled between personal preference on the one hand, and public pressure to close ranks. But center-right patron saint David Brooks is right: “This is a Joe McCarthy moment. People will be judged by where they stood at this time.”

With even the dogged John Kasich leaving the race, the last barrier to Trump’s nomination seems to have fallen. But lists are being drawn. Whether, and precisely how, the GOP’s more principled cohorts accommodate their likely nominee in the coming weeks will determine the fate of Priebus’s call for unity in the general election, and the reputation of the party for “a generation to come.”