There is a notion circulating among pundits that a landslide defeat of Donald Trump would not only be good for the country, but also good for the Republican Party. The idea is that a convincing loss would force the GOP to directly and honestly confront the forces that allowed Trump to rise in the first place. I agree that it would be good for the country to reject Trump by as wide a margin as possible; Trump is a bad person who stands for bad things. But a reckoning in the aftermath of this loss seems unlikely.
For one thing, the Republican Party is gonna be pretty busy after November 8. The GOP might be a huge mess right now, but once Hillary Clinton’s elected, they’ll be bound together by a common cause: opposing her agenda. It’ll be all hands on deck, and there will be little appetite for taking a closer look at their coalition, much less for hashing out what it means to be a conservative. During a Clinton administration, being a conservative will be defined pragmatically and in the negative. Conservatism will be the opposite of whatever Clinton wants to do.
Republicans are already putting this strategy into action. Senator John McCain indicated earlier this week that he believed that the Republican Party would attempt to block whoever Clinton nominated for the open seat on the Supreme Court. This is their prerogative, but it sends a different message than would actually laying out their own criteria for a SCOTUS judge.
The GOP is going to need foot soldiers for its battle against Clinton’s legislative agenda, but the larger the defeat of Trump, the bigger the wave washing away GOP congressmen in down-ballot races. Right now it looks like they’ll lose the Senate but keep the House, which means that they’ll be able to block Democratic legislation if they stay disciplined. Part of the reason the GOP will be able to keep the House is gerrymandering — which is when legislators draw district lines in a way to maximize the number of seats their party gets. (You can see gerrymandering’s effects in the fact that, for instance, the GOP won 57 percent of the seats in the 2014 midterm elections, even though they only won 52 percent of the vote). But gerrymandering also means that GOP losses will be spread very unevenly across the ideological spectrum — the Republicans left in the House are likely to be from the safest Republican districts, which means that they’ll have the least incentive to distance themselves from Trump. The Republicans who have tried to distance themselves from Trump, on the other hand, are the ones running in more moderate or Democratic districts, which means that they’re also the most likely to lose. Long story short, the survivors, if they aren’t outright Trumpists, are going to be the ones who have the least incentive to do a rethink.
Even on the off chance the GOP decides it does want to spend time on a 2016 postmortem, there will be plenty of explanations for the disaster that won’t require Republicans to rethink the party itself. For instance, one of the things they’ll most certainly do is blame the media for both Trump’s rise and fall. The soft form of this criticism is that the media gorged themselves on Trump because his controversy engine of a campaign brought easy ratings and traffic, and failed to dig up his history of sexual harassment and sexual assault until the general election because of incompetence or incuriosity.
The harder form of this critique is that the media tried to rig the election — by flooding the airwaves with coverage of Trump that drowned out the message of the other GOP candidates, and then conspiring to destroy him by reporting on sexual abuse scandals.
Or, as they did in 2008 and 2012, the Republicans will blame their loss on the fact that they did not nominate someone conservative enough — and the solution will be to nominate a “true conservative” next time. The problem is that the same people who chose Trump as the nominee this year are going to be around in 2020, and those Trumpists are not going to be chastened by this year’s result. They are already workshopping their own explanations for why Trump lost — the wishy-washy Republican establishment undermined him, the media conspired against him, and the government rigged the vote. None of that really requires them to rework their politics or their approach.
Republicans say they want to take a look in the mirror and take stock now, but they probably won’t want to in four years. Then, someone will take the recipe that Trump is using and simplify it to white populism, dropping the crude misogyny, incompetence, and scandal that seem to have all but doomed his campaign. The racism and xenophobia, though, will remain in place. Candidates aiming for the GOP nomination in 2020 aren’t going to see Trump as a warning sign; they’ll see him as a road map.