Rick Perlstein predicts the GOP will survive even a massive Trump defeat

Historians in the News
tags: election 2016, GOP, Trump

Isaac Chotiner: If Trump loses by a relatively large margin, how do you think the GOP and the conservative movement will respond?

Rick Perlstein: I think there will be a giant split and there will be a lot of working through, to use the Freudian argot, but parties are very strong institutions in the American system. The rules favor them so profoundly. Building power in a third party is like building a skyscraper by starting on the 20th floor. Something called the Republican Party will exist. You hear this every time. You heard conservatives talking about building a third party in 1974 and 1975 after Watergate. Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, even after McGovern, have a history of resilience. As you know from my Goldwater book, everyone was declaring the death of the Republican Party unless they purged the conservatives, but they really didn’t and they got back all their gains in 1966, because this new issue of housing and the backlash against riots and the militancy of the civil rights movement.

Isaac Chotiner: Ideologically and strategically, how do you think Trump’s loss will be understood among Republicans?

Rick Perlstein:  I’m kind of famous for coming up with a little epigram, “Conservatism never fails. It is only failed.” I came up with this during my long experience of studying the right, and realizing that basically anything that is politically successful is kind of labeled conservatism. Any failure is wiped off the books in this bad faith utterance that well, of course it failed because it wasn’t conservative. Romney wasn’t conservative enough. McCain wasn’t conservative enough. “Bush wasn’t conservative,” you began to hear in 2004, when the wheels came off the bus with Iraq, and all the rest.

That’s what we’ll hear, “Of course, Trump lost. He wasn’t conservative.” That allows everyone else in the Republican Party, basically, to push the infamous reset button. I think a lot of what we saw in the last couple of weeks with Trump’s various former supporters jumping ship, ostensibly because of this grotesque tape and the rest, is all about setting up that next move in the chess game. Everyone who has paid any kind of attention knew that Trump was this kind of guy in the first place. I think what we’ll see is the Paul Ryans and the Ted Cruzes, jockeying for the position of King of Conservatism saying, “We need to wipe the slate clean and go back to Reagan.” The dilemma that raises is that Trump has raised energies in the Republican electorate that may not be able to be so easily contained.
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