WASHINGTON — For a lot of angsty conservatives, there’s more to worry about than just Donald Trump. There’s the future of the conservative movement to consider.
The soul-searching over what to do with the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee includes a broader debate over who gets to define conservatism.
An Iowa talk show host on the right talks of conservatism going into “temporary exile.” A senator and self-described “movement conservative” still is casting about for an alternative to Trump and expected Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The head of a grassroots conservative group in Texas wishes he could wake up from a dream and discover the Trump-as-nominee notion is nothing more than the product of indigestion from a bad burrito.
“The conservative movement, a movement I have been proud to be a part of, has been hijacked and twisted, and all the work we’ve done has been totally reversed,” lamentss RedState columnist Joe Cunningham.
The bitter irritation over Trump isn’t just about ideology; there’s ego in play, too.
“There are certain conservatives who view themselves as the brains and leadership of the movement who are somewhat offended that their call to action to stop Trump failed,” says Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the oldest and largest conservative grassroots organization. “When they told people to go in a certain direction, the people didn’t follow. And so there’s a certain amount of ego and pride wrapped into the current state of affairs.”
For Schlapp, the answer to the what-now question is easy, although his organization hasn’t made an endorsement. He’s ready to “strongly, enthusiastically, full-throatedly” support Trump – given the Democratic alternative.
“Look,” he says, “Donald Trump is not on trial to determine whether or not he is an award-winning conservative. It is a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.”
Further, says Schlapp, Republican voters didn’t reject conservatism to vote for Trump. They simply put a higher priority on Trump’s shake-up-the-system message than they did on evaluating how his positions jibe with their policy manuals.
Some glass-half-full types say conservatives need to stop the gloom-and-doom over Trump, and use this as a teachable moment.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, head of the grassroots group Empower Texans, says conservatives should be reflecting on how they underestimated the frustration of the electorate and consider how they can do a better job of communicating with the millions of first-time voters Trump is bringing into the system.
“A lot of folks on the elected side of the movement have been trying very hard to keep the lid on top of the frustration and the angst and the anger, and when it finally blows it gets a little messy,” says Sullivan. “We need to be encouraging some of our elected officials and some of our politicians and party officials to be willing to let the steam off, and be willing to engage folks at the level where they really are.”
Sullivan adds that based on his conversations with Texas voters, Trump’s early supporters included plenty of frustrated conservative activists who decided, “I know he may not be necessarily exactly one of us, but he’s going to go burn the place down. He’s going to shake up the establishment.”
For now, though, Sullivan is with House Speaker Paul Ryan – just not ready to support Trump.
The speaker said Thursday: “Conservatives want to know, does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution? There are a lot of questions that conservatives, I think, are going to want answers to, myself included. “
Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, which advocates for LGBT rights, says he hears from plenty of “died-in-the-wool conservatives who are splintered right now in terms of where they’re going.”
“The wounds are still fresh, as it were, and I don’t think people are going to digest where we’re headed until several months have gone by,” says Angelo, adding that his organization is “just as splintered and soul searching” as other GOP groups.
Exit polling in the primaries found Trump doing less well with people who are the most conservative.
Across all states so far where exit polling data is available, Trump voters included 36 percent of those who are very conservative, 43 percent of those who are somewhat conservative and 41 percent of moderates.
Count Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska among those who are most outspoken about the conservative dilemma.
He used a Facebook post after Trump’s last GOP rivals dropped out to hold out hope for another option, saying he was willing to set aside “an ideological purity test, because even a genuine consensus candidate would almost certainly be more conservative than either of the two dishonest liberals now leading the two national parties.”
Syndicated talk show host Steve Deace in Iowa, in a column written for USA Today, was even more cutting about how the GOP has failed conservatives.
“Conservatism’s role in the 2016 election is now over while the idiocracy takes it from here,” he wrote.
AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson contributed to this report.