Division, as they say in politics, is the kiss of death. Yet, in the wake of last week’s primaries, the Republican Party is unquestionably divided between two candidates: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. During the middle stages of the primary season, this is perhaps expected. What is not so expected, and is increasingly disturbing Republican strategists, is that these divisions appear to be intensifying, with the likelihood of becoming irreversible by the time of the 2016 presidential election.
Most notably, the negative rhetoric of Trump’s Republican opponents has increased. Former 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has labelled Trump a “phoney” and “fraud”, suggesting that “his promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” Marco Rubio, who recently suspended his 2016 Republican campaign, has branded Trump a “con-artist.” The former Republican Texas Governor, Rick Perry, has stated that Trump “offers a barking carnival act that can be best described as ‘Trumpism’: a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.” Cruz has characterized Trump as “a fragile soul”, “afraid” of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, and intimated that Trump is neither a libertarian nor conservative but instead committed to “New York values” – a veiled proxy for liberal Democratic leanings.
For his part, Trump has levelled his own insults, referring to Romney as a “joke artist”, Rubio as “little Marco”, Perry as requiring “an IQ test” and Cruz as “lyin’ Ted.”
Trump has threatened on social media to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife Heidi. This was followed by posts alluding to Heidi’s physical appearance. Cruz angrily responded that Trump was a “snivelling coward” and should “leave Heidi the hell alone.”
The intensifying attacks by Trump and Cruz have strayed into their respective voting blocs. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Cruz characterised Trump supporters as “low information voters” and “not that engaged”.
By way of comparison, the Democratic contest is comparatively tame as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders fight a contest of differently accented political visions. Aside from the odd rhetorical skirmish, the acrimony permeating the Republican candidates is nowhere to be seen.
With all the infighting between Trump, Cruz and other prominent Republicans, it is difficult to imagine how the party will coalesce around Trump, the widely expected Republican presidential nominee, in the latter half of 2016.
Trump’s centrism will undoubtedly alienate Republican conservatives who recoil at his “popularist” politics and past liberal flirtations, including his former Democratic voter registration and donations.
Moreover, Trump has made alienating comments which could prove more important to traditional Republicans than their political affiliation. Republican women, especially those who are conservative and Cruz supporters, may be less than enthusiastic about Trump in light of comments about Rosie O’Donnell, Sarah Jessica Parker, Megyn Kelly (and others), not to mention social media tweets involving Heidi Cruz.
Similar sentiments could emerge with other Republican constituencies such as African Americans, Latinos or the disabled.
In short, it is likely that come November, substantial segments of the Republican base will be de-energised to support Trump if he is the eventual Presidential nominee. This could lead to a sizable Republican “no show” at the polls.
Some traditional Republicans may even defect, voting for the projected Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Such defection would be most probable with those Republicans – conservative or centrist – who fear, very genuinely, Trump’s ascension to Commander-in-Chief. Is Trump really fit to have his finger on the button, they may ask? Trump may yet prove particularly vulnerable to these fears given his emotive language, bellicose persona and perceived impulsiveness.