The Republican primaries recall the final scene of Frankenstein, in which enraged villagers besiege the castle, determined to do away with the aristocratic mad scientist and his monstrous creation. Unless they can somehow stop Donald Trump from winning either Florida or Ohio on March 15 (he leads in both), thereby practically securing their party’s nomination, the Republican leadership will have lost control of their own party to an open rebellion from the rank-and-file.
One would then expect Mr Trump and his faction to solidify their new-found control of the party apparatus. But he has no faction. He has no ideological movement, because he has no ideology. He has no broad political orientation, let alone specific policy positions.
So, because Trumpism doesn’t exist, it can’t inherit the Republican Party or inform its future. But Mr Trump does serve as a lightning rod for forces that are likely to reshape American politics.
It is possible Mr Trump is a flash in the pan. Some are comparing him to Wendell Wilkie, a former Democrat nominated in 1940 by the Republicans in a desperate effort to try to beat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Republicans then returned to traditional candidates such as Thomas Dewey. Wilkie’s nomination was just a moment and didn’t signal any long-term transformation.
But this analogy ignores the deep structural forces that seem to be erupting through the Trump candidacy and that may preclude any return to business as usual, even if Mr Trump is somehow stopped or is crushed by Hillary Clinton in the general election.
One of the reasons Republican leaders are so alarmed at the prospect of a Trump presidential nomination is the categorical opposition to him in the electorally crucial Latino community. Mr Trump has deliberately appealed to a nativist, chauvinist and racist backlash against immigration. A significant section of the GOP base seems politically motivated by the demographic changes that are transforming white Americans from a majority into the largest minority in a diverse society. Mr Trump has tapped into similar anxieties regarding Muslims, African-Americans and others he paints as threatening.
In addition to these racial and cultural war cries, Mr Trump, despite being a billionaire, has given voice to a deep-seated and growing economic panic. The highly-touted economic recovery has been non-existent for much of the American middle class. Jobs, in particular, are either unavailable or cannot provide a traditionally normal middle-class standard of living. Manufacturing jobs, above all, continue to disappear.
Mr Trump shamelessly lies about transforming the employment market, while issuing absurd threats of trade wars with China and Mexico that he knows would wreck the American economy. His appeal is built on domestic policy attitudes reflecting cultural, racial and economic chauvinism, and a pseudo-macho foreign policy persona centred around bullying, bombing, torture and assassination. The persona he has created is that of a tough guy offering to “fight back”. Against just whom, precisely how, and to what end, are seen as irrelevant details.
The problem for all serious American conservatives is not merely that this witches’ brew of primal passions has upended their party. Nor even that Mr Trump’s ugly brand of politics almost certainly ensures defeat in any nationwide contest.
The deeper conundrum is actually that Mr Trump seems to be building a new coalition that incorporates large numbers of the very blue-collar Americans many Republican leaders believe hold a key to their past and future political success, and that, at the very least, they cannot do without. Moreover this coalition, which ranges from evangelicals to libertarians, hints at prospects of a potentially powerful new Republican bloc that moves beyond the reactionary strictures of the Tea Party and embraces social and economic flexibility. Beyond Mr Trump, counterintuitively, some Republicans think they can see the outlines of a new, pragmatic centre-right majority.
Yet carving out a viable future from this mess is going to require something the Republican establishment has recently seemed allergic to: leadership. And it’s got to begin with a clear-cut repudiation of Mr Trump and his odious politics as the only means of preserving their long-term credibility. The pledge all the candidates made at the end of the last debate to support whoever the nominee proves to be was typically spineless and unprincipled.
The only way Republicans can finally reclaim control of their party will be to show the tough leadership Mr Trump’s constituents clearly crave. And that has to begin with a categorical rejection of Mr Trump’s politics of hate and fear, whether or not he is the Republican nominee.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
On Twitter: @iblishblog