We have already seen the process beginning with former opponents like Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee flocking to the standard of a man whose political ideas they once mocked. They were the first, but they will not be the last. Pundits (like me) may prefer glorious, principled defeat to victory that requires moral compromise. But, as Tuesday’s “Acela primary” shows, many party members are joining the victorious opposition. Trump may still be stopped, but if he wins the nomination, we should not expect a mass exodus from the Grand Old Party.
Bryan’s triumph at the 1896 Democratic Convention was not a clean break with the past, and a Trump nomination may not be either. Conservatives and populists continued their fight for the soul of the Democratic Party for decades, nominating populists (1900, 1908), progressives (1912, 1916, 1928), and conservatives (1904, 1920, 1924) before finally settling on the big government policies of Franklin Roosevelt that have defined their party since 1932.
Trump’s nomination may not define the Republican Party for a generation, but his voters are going to go somewhere. The overdue party realignment is coming, and it will remake at least one major party, if not both. Traditional Republicans may hope that their party returns to its conservative values, and that wish may be fulfilled in time. But whatever happens, they should not get their hopes up for a third-party savior. John Palmer’s quixotic run shows us how an anti-Trump candidacy is likely to end: in overwhelming, but honorable, defeat.