On Tuesday night the Republican voters of Indiana delivered the final verdict on the Republican primary race, giving Donald Trump a crushing 15-point victory over Ted Cruz. Two hours after the polls closed, Cruz acknowledged the writing on the wall and dropped out of the race. Trump’s path to the nomination is now clear.
This outcome was expected, but it doesn’t make it any less shocking. Donald Trump — reality star, real estate developer, and global brand — will likely be the Republican nominee for president of the United States. But six months from now, he will probably lose the general election to Hillary Clinton.
Indeed, the biggest near-term question for Republicans is: How bad will the damage be? How badly will Trump lose? How many seats will the GOP lose in the House and Senate and farther down the ballot in state legislature races?
But the bigger question — and it’s one that we may not know the answer to for months or years to come — is how will the Republican Party survive what’s happened to it over the past year?
At one point, the Republican Party nominally stood on a platform of economic and social conservatism. At least that was the public face of the party. Today, with Trump at its helm, it’s a party of nativism, xenophobia, crudeness, and misogyny. Those elements were of course always present in the party — and are at the root of its modern political success. But they were generally hidden below the surface or utilized with dog whistles. With Trump, there is no mistaking the fact that what drives GOP voters is not conservative dogma, but rather resentment, anxiety, and fear, particularly of minorities, Muslims, and immigrants.
That post-2012 Republican Party autopsy that said the GOP must reach out to Hispanic voters if it wanted to win a national election again is dead and buried. Quite simply, the Republican Party cannot win national elections if it doesn’t find a way to broaden the party’s appeal. With Trump as the presidential nominee, that effort will be set back, perhaps a generation or more.
Even more searing than the electoral challenges, Trump has delivered a savage blow to the GOP’s conception of itself. Armed with a mere handful of endorsements from elected GOP officials, Trump has run a campaign aimed directly against the Republican establishment. And he beat the stuffing out of it. And by taking positions on everything from taxes and trade to transgender Americans and terrorism that run directly against decades of conservative orthodoxy, he’s left the Republican establishment with no clear ideological mooring. Is the GOP a party of small government conservatism or a party of nativism and white male resentment? For decades, Republicans tried to be both, and Trump has, with a single presidential campaign, exposed the fallacy that lay at the heart of the party — namely that its voters were only interested in conservative dogma insofar as it was married to those aforementioned feelings of resentment, anxiety, and fear. But when given a choice between dogma and dog whistle, they’ve chosen this year – overwhelmingly – to go with the latter.
It’s far too early to draw any conclusions about where the Republican Party is headed. Will it crack up? Will it stay together and stumble along as a rump party? Will it even find a way to reform and rejuvenate itself? I have no idea. But what I’m sure of is that as of today, the Republican Party, as we’ve come to know it, has ceased to exist.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.