The 2016 election cycle has produced more head scratching moments than ever before. For Democrats, it started with Hillary Clinton facing a brutal challenge from a relatively unknown independent Senator from Vermont in Bernie Sanders. The campaign for the nomination started friendly enough with Sanders declaring in a debate, “Nobody cares about your damn emails!” However, before it was over the two were slinging accusations of mendacity at each other. That said, once Hillary wrapped up the nomination, Sanders immediately jumped on board and the Democrats were somewhat united, albeit grudgingly.
Republicans, on the other hand, face a boatload of challenges and divisions that arose with the nomination of Donald Trump as the GOP presidential nominee. Trump secured the nomination by being the outsider candidate who would take on the “establishment” and the political “ruling class” in Washington DC. There is considerable irony in the fact that 14 million primary voters believed a Manhattan-based real estate billionaire who aligned himself with Democratic policies and politicians for three decades is the ideal person to fight the “ruling class,” but it is where the GOP found itself.
Trump’s nomination has created deep divisions within the party that may never be healed. In addition, Trump’s ascension has also illuminated dark corners within the conservative movement many people have been blind to for years. It’s as if Reverend Cleophus James (James Brown) in the ‘The Blues Brothers’ is yelling, “Do you see the light!?” at millions of conservatives who shout back, “Yes! I see the light!” For better or for worse, conservatives now have to deal with these illuminated realities, regardless of whether Trump wins or loses in November.
It starts with the reality of politicians consistently choosing political survival over “principle.” Three challengers to Donald Trump boasted anti-establishment credibility, with grassroots followings around their candidacies: Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.
Perry was the first candidate to launch a broadside against Donald Trump, calling him a “cancer on conservatism.” When he suspended his campaign in September 2015, he immediately endorsed Ted Cruz and continued his criticism of Trump. By May of 2016 when it was evident Trump would be the nominee, Perry hopped on the Trump Train, not only endorsing him but leaving open the possibility of being his running mate.
Marco Rubio, mostly passive during the primary towards Trump, became aggressive once the voting started. He took up the hashtag #NeverTrump, and began referring to Trump as a “con artist,” proclaiming in a tweet, “We are not going to turn over the conservative movement to a con artist.” Rubio, like Perry before him, had a change of heart once he suspended his campaign, officially endorsing Trump at the GOP convention.
Ted Cruz was the final holdout. Cruz supporters smugly pronounced he would never endorse Trump after the vicious attacks aimed at his family. He drove the non-endorsement message home with his speech at the GOP convention, imploring people to “vote their conscience.” He was booed off the stage by Trump delegates, but was cheered by his faithful supporters.Cruz broke many hearts when he officially endorsed Donald Trump in a Facebook post on September 23.
For all three, the political landscape was more concerning to them than principles. Perry, likely to give a presidential run one more shot, wanted to remain within the good graces of the party, as did Rubio who is running for re-election this year.And yes, Ted Cruz: He didn’t want to face a potential primary challenger in 2018.
Conservatives also have had to deal with institutions apparently abandoning their principles in favor of political expediency. The Susan B. Anthony List is one of the most prominent pro-life organizations in the country. Before the Iowa caucuses, they issued a press release entitled, ‘Pro-Life Women Sound The Alarm: Donald Trump is Unacceptable.’ The release stated unequivocally, “Mr. Trump cannot be trusted” on the issue of defending unborn children.
Trump is all over the map on abortion and at one point expressed five differing viewpoints on abortion in three days. Their rejection of Trump changed in May, when Marjorie Dannenfelser, the President of SBA List wrote an op-ed entitled, “The Pro-Life Case for Trump.” It was a stunning reversal and one that left many longtime supporters and donors angry as well as wondering, “Are these groups devoted to a cause or to the party and deep pocket donors who back them?”
Another painful reality conservatives are forced to deal with is the realization that party leadership is about the party and nothing else. Critics point to Reince Priebus and his willingness to bend over backward for Donald Trump in the summer of 2015 when Trump was making veiled threats to run as a third-party candidate if the GOP was not “fair” to him. This led to the creation of the GOP pledge in September of 2015 for candidates to support the eventual nominee. Trump disavowed the pledge in March of 2016 only to then cite it in July when demanding other nominees support him. Reince Priebus played right into this, issuing a threat on September 18th to John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz that there would be consequences for not supporting Trump. Cruz endorsed Trump five days later.
The harshest reality Republicans and conservatives have to come to grips with is understanding why Democrats continually beat them in national elections. As a party, Democrats put winning above everything else. Conservatives can either accept the reality of the political expediency they’ve been blinded to and accept it or continue to feel “betrayed,” nominating candidates with little chance of winning only to see the leaders and institutions they look up to, get in line to support the nominee.
If nothing else, at least 2016 has opened our eyes a little. At least it’s shedding some light.