The last two days have convinced anti-Trump Republicans not only that he will lose, but that there will be a prolonged civil war within the party. Trump not only needs to be humiliated at the ballot box, they say, but his supporters will need to be permanently thrown out.
“Whether the Republican party can survive is an open question,” said Randy Scheunemann, who served as a top aide to Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential run. “The Republican party has been deeply wounded by his candidacy and the damage will last far beyond Election Day. Already Trump and Trumpians are blaming ‘establishment’ Republicans for his demise. The blame game after his impending defeat will intensify.”
A strategist for GOP Ohio Gov. John Kasich put the battle in vivid terms: “Sometimes the barn is so infested with rats you just have to burn the damn thing down and start over,” John Weaver tweeted Tuesday.
Trump’s failure may not only cause long-term damage to the Republican Party, but the fracture could be so deep the two factions could break apart for good, with anti-Trump conservatives on one side and the pro-Trump forces on the other.
“My basic belief is that despite a desire to rebuild a big tent, either the Trump faction… will have to leave or be forced out, or those of us who think that the GOP should actually stand for something and nominate decent people should set up a new party,” said Eliot Cohen, a former counselor of the State Department during the Bush administration.
Donald Trump spent the 48 hours following his debate performance in St. Louis escalating a war of words against his fellow Republicans. Rather than focusing his fire on opponent Hillary Clinton, he attacked GOP lawmakers who have disavowed or distanced themselves from him. McCain was “foul-mouthed.” House Speaker Paul Ryan was a “very weak and ineffective leader.”
There’s a sense of sobriety in the Never Trumpers who opposed Trump as the nominee months before he became the party’s official pick in July. “Most of the fellow Republicans I know are reacting the same way they’d react to a horrific car crash on the interstate,” quipped Dan Drezner, a GOP commentator who teaches at Tufts University.
But they also feel a slight—an ever-so-slight—twinge of satisfaction for being right all along.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some satisfaction that he is being exposed for the fake that many of us thought him to be from the beginning,” said Bryan McGrath, a defense consultant who in March helped organize a letter of 121 GOP national security leaders opposing Trump.
It’s a satisfaction that former Trump antagonists Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio may never get to feel—both denounced him in severe terms during the primary, but then later endorsed and have not backed away from their decision. On Tuesday, Rubio reaffirmed his support for Trump despite a leaked video showing the nominee advocating sexual assault.
Never Trumpers will not be satisfied with merely being right, however. The war against Trump will not be over, in the view of many who have opposed him from the beginning, until not only he—but also his supporters and their ideas—are entirely detached from the party.
“After election day, a bitter and protracted civil war will have to be waged to be rid of this mindless and militant Trump cult and to save genuine conservatism’s place in Lincoln’s Republican Party,” said Richard Russell, a Republican who formerly served as an adviser to the U.S. military’s Central Command.
The responsibility for a loss does not end with Trump, these Never Trumpers say—the entire Republican Party apparatus will need to be tossed overboard and replaced, including Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and other members of the Republican establishment that enabled the flawed nominee.
“After the election, there will be a reckoning,” said Carrie Cordero, who gave policy advice to Kasich during the governor’s presidential bid. “First step is Reince needs to go.”
“Reince thinks he’s the king of the party,” said Curly Haughland, who until recently was a member of the RNC from North Dakota. He clashed with the chairman over whether delegates could vote their conscience—rather than for Trump—during the Republican convention. “He is completely beholden to the political industry. His motives are self-serving, and not in the interest of grassroots Republicans, and that’s going to be his downfall.”
To avoid Trumpesque disaster-candidates in the future, said Tom Nichols, a former GOP senate aide who has since become a professor at the Naval War College, the RNC needs to make structural changes, “including closed primaries and discouraging pointless vanity campaigns—that are going to be crucial to preventing this kind of train wreck in the future.”
Trump’s campaign strategy, his pugilistic style, and the propensity to attack fellow Republicans will be fiercely debated after the election, and it’s a debate that could take years to resolve.
But one thing is for sure: The millions of GOP voters who supported Trump passionately will not go quietly. So even as Never Trumpers are preparing for a protracted battle, they are trying to forge the peace they hope comes after.
“Make sure Trump’s supporters understand that the Republican Party ‘gets’ the issues he raised, and work them into the GOP priorities,” McGrath said. “Listen to what Trump’s supporters said—but separate that from Trump.”