The Republican establishment doesn’t like Donald Trump.
That’s the common refrain. It ignores the question of whether there is a Republican establishment or even if there is still a Republican Party.
Of course, there are at least remnants of a traditional Republican Party. Its main platform has been pro-business and against government policies that affect the private sector. Its theme has been that jobs result from a thriving private economy not massive government spending.
After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it also picked up the support of southern conservatives on racial issues and replaced a southern Democratic Party that had become more progressive on civil rights.
That GOP has come under increasing challenge and has struggled against an outright takeover by a new brand of conservatism. Less concerned about helping business and more concerned about social issues and gun rights, it is adamantly opposed to government regulation.
These tea party conservatives either have intimidated most traditional Republicans or defeated them and captured the party’s agenda.
That’s why Sen. Susan Collins could fairly say that she has not left the Republican mainstream, but it has left her. Though she remains loyal, she finds little interest among other Republicans in accommodating her views.
Sen. Ted Cruz is the model tea party Republican. His strict and uncompromising allegiance to extreme conservative policies has led him into conflict with other GOP senators.
Much the same is true for other tea party sympathizers who have gained office around the country. Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage is an excellent example.
Gov. John Kasich comes across as a traditional Republican and consequently a candidate who does not frighten Democrats. Still, he has fallen in line with many rightwing conservative policies like trying to cut down on the size of the electorate.
So where does that leave Trump? He has little regard for either traditional or tea party versions of the GOP. He listens to his own instincts, not to the echoes of party history or the demands of the hard right.
In effect, Trump is not a Republican. The so-called establishment opposes him because his policies depart from traditional Republicanism but also because he is using the Party’s presidential nomination process for his own personal politics.
To him, the Party is a tool, not an institution. He now admits he won’t necessarily support its nominee. Neither will Cruz or Kasich.
How has Trump been able to dominate a major political party for his own ends?
In part, he has gained thanks to the media’s fascination with the notion of a celebrity as candidate. And he has attracted a new group of voters more loyal to him than to the GOP. Neither development was likely to please old-style Republicans.
But a large part of the answer lies in the demise of the Republican Party itself. A political party exists to raise money for its candidates and to organize and deploy party faithful behind candidates and campaigns.
The impact on national political parties of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the door to massive financial political campaign contributions from a handful of super wealthy people, has mostly been ignored. The wealthy players’ spending reduces the influence of parties.
Most of their money goes to purchasing time on television, allowing candidates to communicate directly with voters without paying attention to party principles and platforms.
Of course, grassroots political organizations still matter, but instead of relying on party faithful as volunteers, candidates can now simply deploy their funds to hire everything they need for a complete campaign organization.
Both Trump’s unique candidacy and the changing nature of politics have made the Republican Party less relevant to its own nominating process. The attempt to stop a complete Trump hijack of the process, including fallen candidates Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Scott Walker forlornly endorsing Cruz, may be futile.
There seems to be a belief that, if Trump can be stopped, the Republican Party can be saved. The non-Trump Republicans hope the Democratic nominee will be so vulnerable that a respectable GOP nominee, meaning anybody but Trump, would have a chance of winning or at least would not drag down the Republican ticket.
If Trump is thwarted, will the Republicans resume the identity crisis between the fading traditionalists and the unyielding tea partiers?
Perhaps, but the 2016 campaign could finally reveal if the Republicans can survive as a unified party or evolve into something new.
While the Democratic Party survives, it faces its own split between a resurgent liberalism and a moderate, Clinton-style machine. That, too, merits more consideration.