Donald Trump

The biggest question for 2016 is whether the Republican Party splits apart.

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Wall Street Journal

By Peggy Noonan
Dec. 31, 2015 – 6:18 p.m. ET

In 2016—soon, in just about a month—we’ll find out if Donald Trump voters vote. They say they’re voters and not just rally-goers. In Iowa on Feb. 1 and New Hampshire on Feb. 9, we’ll know if it’s a movement or a moment.

We are going to learn a lot pretty quickly.

In the next few months we’ll find out who emerges as the not-Trump, or not-Trumps. We’ll see a battle. If it is not resolved we’ll have a clearer sense of whether this thing is going to go to the floor of the convention in Cleveland in July. In Washington, what we sloppily but handily call the GOP establishment refers to this possibility as a “brokered convention.” They do this because they think they’ll be the brokers. Will they? Or will they be combatants? If it gets to the floor the correct term will be “open convention,” in the Katie-bar-the-door sense of wild and woolly.

If at some point Mr. Trump appears to be on a sure glide path to the nomination, will the party establishment begin to bolt? If so, what will that look like? If Mr. Trump is done in and his supporters perceive it as the dark work of an underhanded establishment, will they bolt? What will that look like? Will it mean they go home, stay there and refuse to come out in November? Or will they mount a third party with Mr. Trump, having changed his mind once again, at the top? If that happened—here the unknowables and the potential for drama begin to spin out in creative and unexpected directions—could each of three parties garner enough support to produce an Electoral College deadlock? That would be resolved by the House, where Republicans will likely continue to control the majority of state delegations. Would GOP representatives go for the establishment Republican or the third-party Republican?

I have not seen a political cycle so confounding in my lifetime, and it could continue into a year of the most historic kind. If you love politics—the excitement, the unknowability, the to-and-fro—this is the year for you. If you take unhappy U.S. political trends seriously—the shallowness, the restiveness, the division of our polity—you will feel legitimate concern.

We could see a great party split in two. That, I think, is what I’m seeing among the Republicans, a slow-motion break. The question is whether it will play out over the next few cycles or turn abrupt and fiery in this one. Some in Washington speak giddily of the prospect, wondering aloud if the new party’s logo should be a lion or a gazelle. But America’s two-party system has reigned almost since its beginning, and it has kept us from much woe. It has provided stability, reliability and, yes, progress. The breaking or splintering of one of those parties would be an epochal event. Ross Perot in the 1990s was a one-off; the party soon enough healed back into one. Mr. Trump may be a one-off, but the divisions he’s revealed—on how on-the-ground and unprotected people feel about illegal immigration, on the deeper and more dangerous implications of political correctness, on a host of economic and cultural issues—will not, I suspect, be resolved so easily.

If the GOP breaks it will be bitter. The establishment thinks they are saving the party from the vandals—from Trumpian know-nothingism. But Republicans on the ground think those in the establishment were the vandals, with their open borders, donor-class interests and social liberalism.

To read expanded column, click here.