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It’s not a Reagan the GOP needs, it’s a Buckley

Although Donald Trump didn’t have quite the landslide he hoped for on Super Tuesday, he still won in terms of delegates and momentum. Marco Rubio, whose prospects look increasingly grim, won only in Minnesota, and Ted Cruz lost Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama, proving he is not the darling of the deep South as he’d hoped.

The rise of Donald Trump blindsided Republicans. Nothing his opponents have done has been able to stop him, or even slow him down very much. Most people predicted his campaign would fizzle months ago, but now, barring a massive shift in public opinion or a revolt at the Republican convention in July, it looks highly likely that Trump will be the party’s nominee.

Trump has made the 2016 presidential election a surreal nightmare for the GOP. It turns out that libertarians or hard right-wingers are the least of its worries. It wasn’t conservatives but Trump, who was a registered Democrat until six years ago, who hijacked the party. Not only did he make major contributions to Harry Reid’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, as well as to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but he has also repeatedly praised Planned Parenthood, once proposed a gigantic one-off tax on high earners to pay off the national debt, and, in 2008, called George W. Bush “incompetent, bad, evil … maybe the worst president in the history of this country.”

Perhaps it was as a Democrat that Trump formed his opinion of what a Republican is, for in his flip to the GOP, Trump has styled himself as a grotesque embodiment of the worst stereotypes about Republicans. He exercises his prejudices in rants, banging on about a massive wall at the southern border and crudely insulting women and minorities while failing to provide any rational or meaningful detail about his plan to “make America great again.”

Conservatives’ immediate challenge is to rally enough support behind another candidate, most likely Cruz, to prevent Trump from getting the nomination. But arguably the more important task will be to repair the damage Trump’s candidacy is doing to intellectual conservatism.

Trump is an inconsistent blowhard who has no interest in conservative principles or the Constitution. He has won wide support, but preponderantly among those he refers to as “poorly educated.” Trump’s success is uprooting the foundation of conservative thought so carefully laid by the likes of Irving Kristol, Russell Kirk and William Buckley. Destroying the legitimacy of that foundation won’t just hurt intellectual conservatives, but it will also deny conservatives of all stripes, including Trump supporters, any coherent way forward after the election.

Watching the possible destruction of their party and its intellectual framework, many Republicans have cried to the heavens for a new Ronald Reagan to come along and restore order. But perhaps what the GOP needs right now isn’t a Reagan, but a Buckley. In 1965, William Buckley, the founder of National Review and a giant of modern American intellectual conservatism, ran as an independent for mayor of New York City. He had no plans to become mayor, and didn’t think he would. When asked what he would do if he won, Buckley answered, “Demand a recount.”

The purpose of his campaign was to undermine the Republican candidate for mayor, John Lindsay, a liberal Republican who courted left-wing votes and supported progressive causes.

Buckley was out to defend what he called “the root premises of the Republican philosophy of government” against the overwhelming popularity of a candidate who had no interest in those premises. Buckley knew his candidacy might well be a catalyst for a Democratic victory, but he thought it was better to have a bona fide Democrat in office than to legitimize the betrayal of conservative principles by a Republican. Buckley achieved his goal.

Though Lindsay became mayor in the end, he officially cut ties with the Republican Party to become a Democrat while still in office in 1971. And over the course of the next decades, Buckley’s principled conservatism became the dominant strand in the modern conservative intellectual tradition. That strand is now widely referred to as Reaganism.

Buckley’s mayoral candidacy in 1965 looked like an absurd ideological crusade. But it was a decisive moral victory for principled conservatism, and helped propel the Republican Party to its renaissance.

The Republican Party today needs a Buckley; someone to run against Trump with the singular goal of showing him up to be the opportunistic non-conservative he is. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska is already suggesting this course in the event that Trump is the nominee.

Maybe American conservatives who want to save the Republican Party should step back from their desperate search for someone who can win the election in November, and find someone who will make it clear that Trump does not speak for them. That person could pave the way for a conservative victory in 2020, and make it possible for a Reagan-style candidate — someone both broadly appealing and genuinely conservative — to win again.

Molly Gurdon is a fourth-year philosophy student at the University of Oxford.

This article originally appeared on the Washington Examiner website.