Donald Trump's speech before the Detroit Economic Club on Monday was designed to do more than flesh out his plans to overhaul the U.S. tax code, add hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs and "withdraw from the deal" involving the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would tie together the United States, Canada and 10 other countries. It was also designed to change the subject.
Under withering criticism, some within his own party, over his treatment of a Muslim family that lost a son in Iraq combat and a clutch of other controversial statements, Mr. Trump has pushed some Republicans to the brink of mutiny, forcing them to decide whether to abandon the party this fall or to abandon the party's nominee.
These choices became routine for Democrats in recent years, and indeed some Democrats may abandon former secretary of state Hillary Clinton this year. There was a formal Democrats for Nixon organization in 1972 and the movement of Democrats – mostly, but not exclusively, white men – into the camp of Ronald Reagan in 1980 prompted the creation of a new term in the American political lexicon: Reagan Democrats.
But not for more than a half-century have Republicans been faced with such a choice. The last time came in 1964, when the hard-right campaign of senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona forced many regular Republicans – especially those from the Eastern Establishment, which favoured a more moderate brand of Republicanism personified by governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and William Scranton of Pennsylvania – to rethink the depth of their loyalty to the GOP.
Many, probably most, Republicans will vote for Mr. Trump, along with a good number of Democrats. But as the possible Republican refugees are considering their options for the November election, four options have emerged for them:
- Stick with Mr. Trump to preserve the fragile Republican majority in the Senate and the larger majority in the House of Representatives.
The thinking here is that if Mr. Trump does well in the general election, the Republicans who also appear on the November ballot will flourish. That would preserve or possibly even enhance the GOP majorities on Capitol Hill, offering a counterweight to the power Mr. Trump would have as the 45th president.
Republicans by nature honour loyalty, and this would be the ultimate act of loyalty. Even the youngest Republican officeholders – House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was born five years after the Goldwater debacle – know that former vice-president Richard Nixon introduced Mr. Goldwater to the 1964 Republican convention, saying that he was "the man who, after the greatest campaign in history, will be Mr. President."
By campaigning for Mr. Goldwater throughout the fall of 1964, Mr. Nixon won the loyalty of conservatives across the nation even as he displayed his own party loyalty – elements that were important as he began to put together his successful 1968 campaign for the White House.
- Move away from Mr. Trump, endorse Ms. Clinton, but seek to retain the House to keep her in check.
This is an extreme position, but already two Republican members of the House — neither seeking re-election — have said they will not vote for Mr. Trump, with one of them, Representative Richard Hanna of New York, saying that he "is unfit to serve our party and cannot lead this country'' and asserting he would vote for Ms. Clinton. More may emerge, and Monday 50 senior Republican foreign-policy figures issued a letter saying Mr. Trump "would be the most reckless president in American history" and adding they would not vote for him.
The emphasis here is on retaining the House as a brake on the Clinton initiatives. It is a difficult argument to make, but it may fly in some congressional districts, especially in the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states.
- Endorse Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president.
This is the path taken by Representative Scott Rigell of Virginia, who said he could not abide either Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton and will instead support Mr. Johnson. There has not been a stampede to the Libertarian ticket, but it may provide a credible "halfway house" for Republicans who have contempt for Mr. Trump but could not stomach a vote for Ms. Clinton.
Mr. Johnson was the governor of New Mexico and has a profile that many Republicans like: A former businessman, he is a fiscal conservative and believes in limited government, though some Republicans may have difficulty with his early support for same-sex marriage and for the legalization of marijuana. A plus for him is his running mate, former governor William Weld of Massachusetts, who has a sunny disposition and a record of moderation.
- Distance yourself and hope for the best.
This is the position taken by many Republicans. One of them, Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado, aired a television advertisement that said of Mr. Trump: "I don't care for him and I certainly don't trust him." He added that if Mr. Trump were elected, "I'd stand up to him." This could become a template for anti-Trump Republicans.
But for the time being, many of those who find Mr. Trump odious are sitting still. This includes Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a leading conservative theorist; former governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, the first head of the Homeland Security Department; Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, the first Republican to break with Mr. Trump; and former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the party's last nominee.
Mr. Trump may prevail without them, but right now he is banking on reeling in some, if not all, of them. He may yet do so. But this may be yet another intriguing subplot of a campaign that has a surfeit of them.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.