trump sc victory
Trump delivers victory speech in South Carolina
04:21 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley, a conservative, is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

Timothy Stanley says time is running out for conservatives to come up with a strategy to defeat a man at odds with their philosophy

He says Rubio is starting to look like the only real alternative, even though he's lost primaries

CNN  — 

Who does Donald Trump have to insult to lose a primary? Jesus?

In the course of the South Carolina contest, he had a fight with the Pope and implied George W. Bush lied his way into the Iraq War. Bush is probably more popular than His Holiness in this very Protestant state, but even an attack on St. George did nothing to stop The Donald winning on Saturday.

“Clinton vs Trump is the race America deserves,” tweeted the mysterious and all seeing Matt Drudge. “EPIC. WILD. NASTY. FUN.” But is it the race America needs? Hell no. And it’s up to the moderates to stop it.

The campaign Americans evidently do not want is a rematch of Clinton vs. Bush. While the Democrats settled for Hillary in Nevada, the Republicans narrowed the contest down to the brash Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – so at least one party is moving on from the 1990s.

Jeb Bush bowed out with considerable grace. The man had offered a kind of candidacy-by-numbers: raise big money, scoop endorsements, emphasize experience. But he failed to exploit the popular mood for change, colored by anger at the very patrician, Wall Street, mainstream conservatism that the Bush family represents. Jeb’s big-money politics proved arcane in this new era.

A friend said to me: “He’s wasting all this money on TV. The only people who watch TV nowadays are too old to stay awake during his commercials.”

Social media has counted for a lot this year; charismatic performances in debates, a great deal. There were times in those televised contests when Bush withered beneath Trump’s stare with a terrified smile. You wanted to hug him. But not vote for him.

Trump, by contrast, remains compelling. There is a theory that some mainstream Republicans are pushing that he’s just a lucky man.

Winning roughly a third of the vote in New Hampshire and South Carolina isn’t too hard: Pat Buchanan did something similar in 1996. And it means that two-thirds of the rest of the state-by-state vote is waiting to coalesce around an alternative. That will eventually happen, say the optimists, it’s just taking an unusually long time to effect.

The problem with this theory is that: A) as other candidates quit the race, some of their votes will transfer to Trump and B) absolutely everyone has to get behind Marco Rubio pretty much right now to effect this sudden and overwhelming counterrevolution.

Will John Kasich, who believes he can do better in the north of the country, drop out anytime soon? Or Ted Cruz? It’s hard to see what Cruz’s path to the nomination is after the latest result.

He did well among evangelicals and/or those described as “very conservative” – but to be in third place with 99% of the vote counted in a Southern, deeply religious state like this is devastating. Nevertheless, he’s got a fabulous organization and quite a bit of money. He probably will hang around.

At least Cruz is a kamikaze conservative that we can all understand. If the moderates do not make a concerted effort to get behind Rubio and beat Trump, the long-term consequences for orthodox conservatism could be huge.

For 50 years, it has functioned according to a coherent, logical alliance between social, economic and military conservatives – embodied somewhat in the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whose intellectual justification of tradition reflected a movement motivated by both faith and reason.

Yet in the past few months, a Republican front-runner has emerged who has praised Planned Parenthood, pushed elements of a big spending agenda and questioned the neoconservative agenda. There’s a case for saying that some or all of these were in need of analysis and revision. But Trump has taken a wrecking ball to the American conservative movement that threatens to leave it in pieces.

It’s a revolutionary moment and, unless I’m very much mistaken, conservatives are not supposed to be the revolutionaries. They exist to bring order to chaos, rationality over passion. Trump seems to exist to “mix things up.” He is “nasty” and “fun” – although more the former than the latter. His enthusiasm for torture is unpleasant to say the least.

“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party,” as they say – and so they should. In the next few days, egos have to be laid aside, more people have to drop out and Rubio needs to gain enough support to actually win a primary.

It might seem a little absurd to pour all of one’s hopes into a candidate who hasn’t even won anything yet, but in these odd times, Rubio is starting to look like the only real alternative to Donald Trump.

To be clear: A Trump nomination does not necessarily spell defeat for the Republican Party in November or anarchy for America in the future. But it would represent a departure from conservative tradition and the emergence of a new, raw politics that could change the GOP beyond recognition.

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