By Niall Stanage - 10-17-16 06:00 AM EDT
The Republican Party is in crisis - and it is going to get worse before it gets better.
The forces unleashed by Donald Trump's presidential campaign are unlikely to disappear after the election, party insiders concede, even if Hillary Clinton beats him handily in November.
Many Republican are openly questioning whether the Grand Old Party is sliding into chaos, with the establishment unable to prevent a post-election shattering of its coalition.
"It's splitting right before your eyes. It's happening now," said Rick Tyler, who served as communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) presidential campaign.
"There is a civil war in the party that is going on right now. The question is whether, after the election, the party will be able to repair itself; or cease to exist; or continue to exist in some diminished way."
Should Trump lose to Clinton, as polls now project, the bloodletting is certain to be intense.
Conservatives who have long regarded Trump as an ideological imposter are in a position to make the case that the party should return to its core values. Supporters of Trump, meanwhile, could make the case that it was a lack of establishment buy-in - not problems with the candidate - that cost them the election.
Other believe that the party needs to hew closer to the center ground to make itself electable again - but they don't hold out much hope of quick progress.
John 'Mac' Stipanovich, who has worked in Republican circles in Florida for 35 years, including as a senior advisor to Jeb Bush and chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Martinez, said that he thought "people of good intentions and goodwill may regain dominance in the Republican Party," but that the process would take a long time.
"That may be a much-shrunken Republican Party," Stipanovich said. "We may be about to enter a wilderness here in which we will wander for a decade or more, and hopefully emerge. But if that's the case, then we need to wander. I personally don't want to be in a party that is characterized by Trumpism."
Some people have suggested that the party could split apart entirely. In an interview with Vox, published on Friday, GOP consultant Steve Schmidt predicted that an "alt-right party" and "a center-right conservative party" would emerge.
Also on Friday, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney said in a podcast interview that it would be "very difficult" for the Republican Party to be "put back together again" after the election. Romney's remarks were first reported by Buzzfeed.
Tyler said that, while he harbors no great love for the current GOP establishment, a new party could be a dead-end.
Over the history of the Republic, he told The Hill, "all these parties have come and all these parties have gone."
He added: "Why should I have a new party? I want to make the Republican Party the conservative, free market, freedom party. That's its history."
Divisions have long existed within the GOP, with those fissures deepening with the rise of the Tea Party under President Obama.
But even the turmoil caused by the Tea Party pales in comparison to what's happening now, with Trump remaking the GOP in his image.
Trump's recent tactics have aligned him more fully than ever before with the "Breitbart" wing of the party - the faction, named after the right-wing news organization, that has become synonymous with nationalism, warnings of globalist conspiracy and vigorous attacks on both Democrats and GOP leaders in Washington.
Its critics argue that the movement also traffics in xenophobia and racism.
The executive chairman of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, has been Trump's campaign CEO since mid-August, and his fingerprints are all over the candidate's latest moves. (Bannon is on a leave of absence from Breitbart while working for Trump.)
In the past eight days alone, Trump has invited women who accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to a presidential debate; peppered his speeches and statements with references to Hillary Clinton's "globalist" agenda; lambasted prominent Republicans including Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.); and pushed back against sexual assault allegations by casting aspersions on the appearance of some of the accusers.
Those tactics have delighted Trump's base, but have done him no good in opinion polls. As of Sunday afternoon, Trump lagged Clinton by more than five points in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, and was given only about a 17 percent change of prevailing in the election by the data forecasting website FiveThirtyEight.
Those dynamics - as well as Trump's longer history of using controversial rhetoric about illegal immigrants, women and Muslims - are cited by other Republicans as evidence that the party would doom itself to perpetual defeat if it continues down the Trump path after Nov. 8.
"You cannot be crazy and win a national or big-state election," said Stipanovich. "You may do so in a safe district. But in a Florida or a California or a Texas, we are about to learn that you have to stay somewhere within a rifle shot of the center."
But Stipanovich also acknowledged that there was no real chance of his faction winning back the GOP in quick and easy fashion.
"It's not like there is going to be a meeting, we will take a vote, and it'll be over. This will play out over the next several election cycles: '18, '20, '22."
Some say the rise of Trump, and those forces associated with him, reveals a disconnect between the priorities of the establishment and the voters they claim to represent.
"The core principles that drive Breitbart seem to be gaining popularity," Alex Marlow, the editor-in-chief of the Breitbart News Network, told CNNMoney last week. "There is a movement."
There is also a huge question mark hanging over what Trump will do if he is loses the election.
Some believe he will exit the political stage and return to life as a businessman. Others think he may well stay involved in politics in some fashion, albeit not as a candidate.
There have been persistent rumors that Trump will start his own conservative media organization - and that could be the worst outcome of all for Republicans seeking to wrest back control.
Such an organization might act as a megaphone for the views Trump has put forward in his presidential run, and could serve as a platform for a 2020 candidate to run along similar lines.
Trump's supporters, according to GOP consultant Ron Bonjean, "are not going to disappear, and they are going to push and pull for the soul of the Republican Party."
Bonjean does see some slivers of optimism. There is at least a possibility, he said, that GOP leaders in Washington could find a way to "connect" with grassroots anger and "present an agenda that those voters will understand."
Alternatively, a figure with Trump's populist instincts but fewer of his personal foibles could emerge.
But Bonjean made no bones about the cataclysm consuming the party.
"We are, right now, in a raft navigating the political rapids - without any oars," he said.