It's been a tough few years for the Republican "establishment." Criticized and vilified, they've become a pariah within the party they're supposed to dominate. The only saving grace is that since the group itself is so nebulous, anybody can claim that they aren't a part of it.
Perhaps that's why the establishment seems to have such trouble getting its act together. It couldn't stop the Tea Party from determining the GOP's agenda, it couldn't get any of its favored candidates the presidential nomination, and now what may be its final stab at asserting its will in this era—a last-ditch attempt to stop Donald Trump from becoming the Republican nominee—seems doomed to fail.
In the process, though, there's something interesting happening, something that offers a good lesson in how politics works. The scant membership of this effort—sometimes called "Dump Trump," or referred to by the #NeverTrump hashtag—shows how everyone in politics is hemmed in by their own interests.
Let's take a look at not just what they're doing, but who's doing what. At the end of last week, some of those establishment folks gathered in Washington to plot their strategy for taking Trump down. Here's how The New York Times describes their emerging strategy:
Republican leaders adamantly opposed to Donald J. Trump's candidacy are preparing a 100-day campaign to deny him the presidential nomination, starting with an aggressive battle in Wisconsin's April 5 primary and extending into the summer, with a delegate-by-delegate lobbying effort that would cast Mr. Trump as a calamitous choice for the general election.
Recognizing that Mr. Trump has seized a formidable advantage in the race, they say that an effort to block him would rely on an array of desperation measures, the political equivalent of guerrilla fighting.
It's hard to see this as anything but pitiful. One gets the impression someone stood up at the meeting and said, "If we can just keep him from winning Wisconsin ... well ... that'd be something, right?" And nobody had any better ideas.
They're also short on support, which brings us back to the question of who's involved in this effort and who isn't. The central figure in the Dump Trump campaign may be William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and much-mocked pundit. There are a few other media figures doing their part (Erick Erickson, Glenn Beck), and some bigshot GOP fundraisers you've probably never heard of.
What do these people have in common? Opposing Trump, even if he becomes the nominee, carries minimal cost for them. They can't get fired by angry voters, they don't have to fear the displeasure of Trump if by some miracle (or calamity) he actually becomes first the party's leader and then the president, and even another Republican loss wouldn't harm them all that much, other than emotionally.
In other words, to this group, there isn't a great personal cost for opposing Trump. And you might have noticed that there are almost no Republican politicians in the Dump Trump effort. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, hardly a household name across America, is practically the only one who has come out clearly to say that he won't support Trump. With other Republicans, we've seen the same pattern again and again: They endorse someone else, criticize Trump, and say they're deeply disturbed by his thuggishness, but when they get the inevitable question—So, does that mean you won't support him if he wins the nomination?—they say sheepishly that they'll support the nominee of their party, whoever that may be.
You can argue that if you're a conservative, a President Trump is still preferable to a President Clinton, even if he's an unpredictable buffoon whose ascendancy might just herald the End of Days. But what's really going on is that a politician has different factors to consider than a donor or a pundit, even if they all share the same views.
One of the most important rules in understanding politics is to figure out where people's interests lie, and then you can predict what they're likely to do. Political actors of all kinds have sincere ideological beliefs, but they also respond to the incentives and dangers they see before them. The fact that two people are allies doesn't mean they have the same incentives and interests.
One of the best examples from recent years of how this plays out is the Republican Party's response to immigration. After 2012, those in the party with the broadest view—RNC officials, think-tankers, some pundits—agreed that the party needed to reach out to the fast-growing Latino population, and passing comprehensive immigration reform was one important way to do so. But most Republican members of the House of Representatives had no incentive to go along with that plan, because in the conservative districts they represent, all their constituents want to hear is how tough their crackdown on undocumented immigrants is going to be. Their only worry about re-election comes in the form of a primary challenge from the right. So the need to be re-elected creates a different set of incentives for them, and as a result, comprehensive reform can't pass the House. What the party as a whole wants runs up against what individual politicians within the party want.
This conflict between what's good for the party and what's good for individual politicians within the party has played out vividly in the presidential campaign. For instance, when Marco Rubio arrived in Washington, working on immigration reform looked like a great way to accomplish something important for the party and the country, and position himself as a leader once 2016 came around. But the primary campaign required seeking the favor of base voters—who turned out to be more interested in a guy who says Mexicans are rapists and wants to build a wall along the border. Rubio was a favorite of that establishment, which helped make him a viable candidate but then ended up hurting him with the voters.
So if you're a Republican sitting in the Senate or House, trying to figure out what to do about Trump, what are your incentives and interests? You don't want your party to fail in the presidential campaign again, because winning would mean you could accomplish so many conservative goals. But more immediately, you don't want to lose your own job. At the moment, it looks like nothing can stop Trump from winning the nomination, so what good would it do to sign on to a losing effort to stop him, particularly when your endorsement probably won't help much if at all? You've seen how popular Trump is with the Republican base, and angering them is a good way to get yourself a primary challenge. And if he does win, you want to be on his good side.
All that means that politicians have almost nothing to gain by categorically opposing Trump. A pundit can say whatever he wants—even endorse a third-party candidacy that would retain some kind of ideological purity while it delivers the White House to Hillary Clinton—and keep his job. It may even benefit him, since he can look principled and brave. But politicians don't have that liberty.
That also means that if and when Trump does win the nomination, almost all Republican politicians—with the possible exception of those representing swing districts and states—will rally around him. They may not feel good about it, and they may worry about how it will make them look. But it will be the only thing that's in their interests.