#NeverTrump is dead. Long live #NeverTrump.
Less than a week ago the major players in the “Never Donald Trump” movement were boasting to reporters about their big ad buys in Indiana—at least $3.2 million in the state—as evidence of their might and will. By Monday, some were sheepishly confessing to MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt that they already knew they had failed, in advance of the Indiana results. But they failed way bigger than any of them dreamed: After Trump carried Indiana, the last official standard-bearer of #NeverTrump hopes and dreams, Senator Ted Cruz, dropped out of the race.
That followed what might have been the most brutal 12 hours of the campaign to date, as Trump accused Cruz’s father of having a hand in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and Cruz branded Trump an “amoral pathological liar” and said that unless he was stopped, “this country could well plunge into the abyss.” Such histrionics don’t jibe with dropping out of the race hours later, but nothing has gone predictably in this 2016 GOP presidential primary.
Of course, #NeverTrump never should have been necessary: GOP leaders have boasted since 2012 about the “deep bench” of contenders that would vie for the nomination in 2016. But all 16 of the non-Trumps—senators, governors, and ex-governors; Tea Partiers and moderates—have fallen. (Ohio Governor John Kasich, who won only 8 percent in the state that borders his home, is in a horror movie where he’s dead but he doesn’t know it yet.) Once a “Stop Trump” movement came to seem necessary, it was already doomed, because its hopes rested with Cruz, who vies with Trump for the title of the most hated man in the GOP today. With his silly Ted tricks, faux filibuster, and actual government shutdown, Cruz made himself the leader of culturally conservative Christian evangelicals, a large bloc within the GOP. Yet “Two Corinthians” Trump often outpolled him among evangelicals in states he won, including Indiana. (It may turn out they are less pro-Jesus than anti-Obama.)
Cruz dropped out unexpectedly, but for the same reason Senator Marco Rubio did—he’s looking at making another run in 2020. That was the other problem with #NeverTrump: Many of the GOP candidates seemed to dislike one another as much as they dislike Trump, and rivalry made it impossible for them to coalesce behind the strongest candidate in the group.
But the biggest problem with the futile effort to stop Donald Trump was this: He’s giving a large plurality, if not a majority, of Republican voters exactly what they want, a simplistic, say-anything, nativist tough guy who channels their rage and their fear. Watching the call and response at his campaign rallies—“What are we gonna build?” “A wall!” “Who’s gonna pay for it?” “Mexico!”—has been an alarming window into the angry magical thinking that animates Trump’s base. Trump’s shocking political positions—banning Muslims from entering the United States, deporting undocumented immigrants—are now supported by large majorities of GOP voters.
That’s at least partly thanks to the fact that his GOP rivals often aped his ugly stances. The same Ted Cruz who called Trump an “amoral pathological liar” proclaimed last fall: “I have been glad to praise Donald Trump for speaking out boldly and brashly and for focusing on illegal immigration.” The same Mitt Romney who belatedly denounced Trump in 2016 sought his endorsement, and thus endorsed his ugly birtherism, in 2012. In a post widely shared on social media Tuesday, Red State editor and staunch #NeverTrump promoter Ben Howe took partial blame for ignoring the strain of paranoia and racism that had infected his party. “I would cringe at something someone said, or quietly roll my eyes at a post they wrote, thinking ‘Gosh, I can’t believe they think that way’ or ‘I swear that person is one tweet away from saying Obama is from Kenya,’” Howe wrote. “I looked the other way, and I’m sure many others did too, as these people rose to prominence and their microphones got louder.” This is Trump’s party now, and Republicans who oppose him have to figure out what to do about it, as he threatens to make the GOP even more explicitly a vehicle for identity politics for white people.
One question is, does #NeverTrump evolve into #RepublicansforHillary, which is the most viable “Stop Trump” play left? In the last week, despite the boasting of the funded anti-Trump groups, a lot of folks have weakened, most notably Bill Kristol. “On the one hand, I’ll say #NeverTrump, and on the other hand, I’ll say never say never,” Of course, when Always-Wrong Kristol joined #NeverTrump, it was a sure sign the New York blowhard would be the nominee.
But on Tuesday night, as #RepublicansforHillary trended, some noteworthy Republicans moved from #NeverTrump to “I’m with her.” Former John McCain speechwriter Mark Salter and Red State’s Ben Howe both came out as not merely anti-Trump but pro-Clinton when Cruz dropped out. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse continued to urge Republicans to find a third-party challenger. But expect most Republicans to unite behind Trump. Ineffectual Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus set the tone on Wednesday morning. “You know what, I think something different and something new is probably good for our party,” he told CNN. “Look, I don’t think anyone predicted what happened. So, look, we’re here. We’re going to get behind the presumptive nominee.” That’s the kind of bold leadership that got the GOP where it is today: hopelessly broken.
I believe the close-to-presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, will beat Trump decisively in November. Right now, he’s viewed negatively by three-quarters of voters who aren’t white, two-thirds of women, and 70 percent of voters under 35. Clinton leads Trump by 26 points among women in the latest CNN poll. But Trump is stronger, with an important demographic: the media. I’m not one who blames the media for his rise; his shocking campaign has been the biggest story of the last year, and it deserved to be widely covered. But the blanket Trump coverage favored shock over substance, and let him control entire news cycles with a single cruel tweet. Now his every move toward being “presidential” will be taken seriously by a political press that yearns for a horse race and doesn’t like Clinton. Just the most recent case in point: the fact that he accused a rival’s father of having a role in the Kennedy assassination was treated as clickbait, rather than a claim that ought to have been disqualifying.
This will be a race so ugly that those of us covering it will have to shower twice a day, and ultimately, anything can happen.
Updated at 12:27 pm: After vowing to fight on Tuesday night, Kasich abruptly canceled his public events Wednesday, and sources confirmed that he will suspend his campaign. Donald Trump has now defeated all 16 of his GOP foes.