With Unity Like This, Who Needs Division?

Nikki Haley supporters react as CNN broadcasts live from the headquarters of former President Donald Trump during a primary election night party on February 24, 2024, in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Celebrating his victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday, Donald Trump declared, “I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now.”

It was an indisputable victory for Trump, particularly given that it was in the home state of his last remaining rival for the nomination, Nikki Haley, a twice-elected and popular former South Carolina governor. Trump beat Haley by about 20 points, and she doesn’t look likely to do much better than that going forward. Barring some shocking development, it’s a foregone conclusion that Trump will be the nominee.

But the GOP is not unified, never mind like never before. It’s actually as divided as it was in 1992, which was not a great year for Republican unity.

That was the year that Pat Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush for the nomination. Buchanan got just less than 38 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, and it was widely regarded at the time—and ever since—as a devastating rebuke and a sign that the GOP was in deep disarray. 

Buchanan stayed in the race until the end despite failing to win a single primary, much as Haley is threatening to do. The conservative challenger contributed to Bush’s subsequent defeat in the general election, and his candidacy established a lasting Buchananite faction within the party.

Now, Trump isn’t an incumbent, but countless observers (including me) have made the point that he’s running as a quasi-incumbent. Indeed, last week, Haley referred to him as a “de facto incumbent.” Trump has 100 percent name identification, and the party’s infrastructure has largely acted as if he were still its leader.

More importantly, Trump falsely claims that the 2020 election was stolen, and many Republican voters believe him. This lie is often denounced for lofty reasons having to do with democracy and his unfitness for office—rightly so. I think Trump disqualified himself from political office with the conduct that culminated in the January 6, 2021, riot. But its practical effects on the GOP are often overlooked.

Much of right-wing media and many elected GOP officials, including most of Trump’s primary opponents, refused to acknowledge that he lost. This prevented the party from turning the page on Trump or having a healthy debate over whether to move on from Trumpism. 

Normally, when a party loses, an opposing faction within it gets a shot. That couldn’t happen in this case. As a result, Trump operates as an incumbent—a very weak incumbent.

But while the internal party reckoning that comes with a loss can be delayed, it can’t be denied. Over time, the opposition girds for its turn in power. Indeed, when Trump was elected in 2016, many—including Buchanan himself—hailed his victory as a long-postponed vindication for Buchananism.  

There’s a key difference, however, between 2024 and 1992. Buchanan’s campaign was about issues—immigration, trade and foreign policy chief among them. Today, with the partial exception of support for Ukraine—which is largely a proxy for supporting Trump and his Russophilia—Republicans aren’t badly divided over any issue other than Donald Trump himself.

In the old days, Republicans who were moderate on abortion, defense, or taxes were often dubbed “RINOs”: Republicans in name only. Today, the term is reserved almost exclusively for Republicans who are insufficiently loyal to Trump.  

Texas Rep. Chip Roy, for instance, is easily one of the most consistently conservative Republicans in Congress. But his support for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign was enough for Trump to dub Roy a RINO and call for a primary challenge to him.

Trump has vacillated on abortion, fidelity to the Constitution and other formerly conservative litmus tests without paying a price among self-described conservatives. Moreover, the need to paper over his myriad character defects invites a kind of pathological defense of the man in full that has erased the “character issue” entirely. Indeed, it’s fair to say that many voters who describe themselves as “very conservative” mean they’re very supportive of Trump.

Similarly, Haley enjoys strong support among self-described moderate Republicans. But on the issues that once defined the party, she’s a conservative. 

Haley’s determination to stay in the race probably won’t lead to her being president one day. But if the GOP is ever going to have a traditional conservative as a standard-bearer again, it will be because she helped preserve a safe space for them within the party.

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