Rush. Trump. Cruz. Fox News. Can the Republican Party avoid a crack-up?

A week before the Iowa caucuses, I drove through rolling, snow-frosted fields east of Des Moines, moving from Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz campaign rallies, listening to Rush Limbaugh–an old Iowa tradition of mine–who was falling apart. El Rushbo sounded as blustery and brilliant as ever to the untrained ear, but he was tiptoeing around Donald Trump, asking rhetorical questions rather than deploying his usual slam-bang apocalyptic barrage. Limbaugh had been a Trump enabler for months–for years, in a metaphoric sense, given his stoking of his listeners’ self-indulgent anger–but now Trump had jumped the shark. The Donald had said that he could work with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Was that a good thing? Limbaugh pleaded with callers. Wasn’t that what the Republican establishment had been doing all along? And then he talked about a long lunch he’d had with Ted Cruz, and how Cruz was all about uniting conservatives.

Cra-ack. A segment of the foundation supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy seemed to be fissuring. Limbaugh’s petite semidefection was part of a general rush to the exits by movement conservatives who had realized their party was being hijacked. Just as revealing was the roster of Washington types who said they would rather see Trump as the nominee than the corrosive Cruz–Bob Dole, Senator Orrin Hatch, the quiet legion of lawyer-lobbyists who had spent decades sneaking goodies for corporations into the flabby folds of our regulatory legislation. Cruz, who is somewhere to the right of Caligula, was a sly libertarian, campaigning throughout Iowa while opposed to the state’s lucrative ethanol boondoggle. That was his real threat to the GOP establishment: he was a missile pointed directly at their tax breaks.

At least Trump, the nihilist, narcissist, protofascist, was a man they could deal with. There was that word again: deal. Limbaugh repeated it over and over, mesmerized by his sudden discovery of the heart of the matter. There were believers and there were dealmakers. His listeners were believers. And then, as he was speaking, word came that Trump might be dumping the Fox News debate. Limbaugh laughed. This had to be a ploy. Trump couldn’t be serious … although Rush defended it the next day.