The lowest moment of Thursday night – maybe the lowest of the election and in the history of the GOP – came before the debate, when Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus pledged that the RNC "is going to support the nominee, whoever that is, 100 percent."
This came on a day in which Donald Trump's campaign, despite an eyewitness and audio evidence, denied that its manager strong-armed reporter Michelle Fields – and then savaged her as "delusional." It came on a day when violence yet again occurred at another Trump rally, violence that Trump has made light of or encourages (as Jake Tapper ably pointed out).
It came after a boatload of information has revealed Trump's penchant for lying and misleading consumers. It came when Trump has refused to turn over his tax records, preventing voters from seeing his real financial picture.
To begin with, no one asked Priebus to speak. He could literally have said nothing other than "Thanks for coming!" He's a functionary, and no one came to hear him. He, unfortunately, turns out to be a functionary who is entirely unwilling to question, let alone condemn, the vile conduct of the front-runner candidate.
The RNC now stands for no principle and upholds no standard of conduct. It exists merely to win. In doing so, it loses conservatives of good conscience who believe a party is a receptacle, a vehicle for ideas that advance the country's well-being.
The sort of soulless, amoral stance displayed last night toward a figure as dangerous as Trump suggests that whether Trump becomes the nominee or not, a new center-right party is required, one that specifically rejects Trumpism. A party is needed that embodies everything that Trump is not – inclusive, ideas-driven, programmatic, dedicated to the rule of law, rational, optimistic – for those who believe that 21st-century liberal statism is not the cure for what ails the United States.
If by some small miracle a non-Trump nominee wins, it will be essential to, in essence, start anew, with new party leadership. It's easy to see who should not be included – the mix of slimy opportunists (e.g., New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Newt Gingrich), nativists (e.g. Sen. Jeff Sessions, David Duke) and unblinking yes-men (the RNC leadership, Republican Jewish Coalition leadership) unwilling or unable to recognize that this is an existential moment for the party and the country.
If Trump gets the nomination, Republicans who regard Trump's message and conduct as wholly unacceptable will be obligated to leave the party, withhold their financial support and refuse to vote for him. In the short run, it means finding a third conservative candidate who does not excuse despotic repression of dissidents, put the United States at odds with the entire Muslim world and advocate ordering troops to kill noncombatant women and children (a war crime).
In the longer run, it means starting a different center-right party, leaving the GOP to the bigots, the con men and the fans of dictators.
A third candidate is not likely to win in November, but fielding a candidate will be essential in order to turn out regular Republicans for down-ticket candidates. The excuse that a third candidate would help Hillary Clinton is misplaced. As the polls (the real ones, not the ones Trump imagines) make clear, Clinton is going to crush Trump, even in a one-on-one contest.
Moreover, #NeverTrump does mean something, namely that he cannot be the president. Ever. Someone so lacking in character, knowledge and respect for the rule of law must lose; no person of good conscience should enable him to reach the White House.
A third candidate, in other words, will not make a Clinton victory any more likely, but it could save the Senate and begin the process of reformulating the party for conservatives of goodwill.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.