5 stages of GOP grief: Coming to terms with Trump

Story highlights

  • The GOP has gone from dismissal to something bordering on acceptance of the Donald Trump campaign
  • Some establishment Republicans say they'd choose him over other people in the field

(CNN)The unexpected and remarkable rise of Donald Trump has sent the GOP establishment into a recognizable spiral. Even before he formally entered the race in June, politicos and pundits were seized with early signs of denial -- Trump was bluffing again, they said. Now, with the first presidential primary contests on the horizon and Trump still firmly in command, the mood ranges from purple-faced anger to limp acceptance.

It's an emotional journey Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross would have recognized.
In her path-breaking book, "On Death and Dying," the Swiss-born psychiatrist introduced what would come to be known as the "five stages of grief."
Originally composed as clinical guidance for doctors trying to better understand patients coming to grips with their own "finality," Kübler-Ross' treatise has emerged as a staple of the broader culture -- a document as instructive for physicians as it is for candidates, political operatives and the reporters who cover them.
It is "inconceivable for our unconscious to imagine an actual ending of our own life here on Earth," she wrote in 1969, but, over time, the place of death in her theory has been rented out by an assortment of mind-bending concepts. In 2016, that means Trump.
While the GOP is obviously not in the final stages of death -- they control both houses of Congress and a majority of state governments -- they have been slow to reckon with Trump. Most of the political world has experienced at least a few of the "five stages" -- here's what they've looked like:

Stage 1: Denial

"These patients can consider the possibility of their own death for a while but then have to put this consideration away in order to pursue life." p.52, "On Death and Dying"
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The writing was on the wall, and occasionally in the mainstream press, by early 2015. But few in the pundit game were willing to see it.
"Trump will move to Maine and raise beets before he runs for president," snarked a columnist in the Christian Science Monitor. "It's not happening, no way, no chance, let's be real."
And yet, there Trump was in mid-June, not in Maine but New York City, slowly descending a gold-plated escalator to the stage -- in his own skyscraper -- where he would announce his plans to seek the GOP nomination.
"Clown Runs For Prez," blared the New York Daily News. One reporter framed his campaign as an elaborate troll and another outlet barred his doings their political coverage.
"Can you take him seriously?" asked Charles Krauthammer, the conservative writer and Fox News contributor.
As it turns out, the answer was a resounding yes. No false start, no slow fade, just a steady diet of what less bombastic right wingers had been feeding the party foot soldiers for years. And they lapped it up.

Stage 2: Anger

"Wherever the patient looks at this time, he will find grievances." p.65, "On Death and Dying"
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With time and new media attention, came umbrage.
First there was Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor, whose wife was born in Mexico, said on July 4th he took very personal offense to Trump's ugly characterization of Mexican immigrants.
"[H]is views are way out of the mainstream of what most Republicans think," Bush told the New York Times that day, blurring the line between denial and anger.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who would later describe "Trumpism" as "a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued," said on July 5 he too was "offended by [Trump's] remarks."
By early August, the billionaire was drawing sharp rebukes for questioning whether Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican held for nearly six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was in fact a "hero."
And yet, Trump endures -- the gnashing and rending over his plan to temporarily "shutdown" the immigration of Muslims into the U.S. only fueled him. Anger, of which he is an unabashed fan, simply propels his #TrumpTrain further, faster.
Though some have moved on to less aggressive states, others are only arriving now.
The National Review, that pillar of American conservatism, on Thursday published essays from 22 intellectual poobahs and one long editorial declaring -- in a tone apparently meant to channel the magazine's founder, William F. Buckley -- that Trump would "take the work of generations and trample it underfoot on behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as The Donald himself."

Stage 3: Bargaining

"The bargaining is really an attempt to postpone; it has to include a prize offered 'for good behavior,'' it also sets a self-imposed 'deadline,' and it includes and implicit promise that the patient will not ask for more if this one postponement is granted." p.96, "On Death and Dying"
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As the Trump surge rode on through July and into August, establishment Republicans first began to grapple with a new reality. The man they had dismissed months earlier stood a legitimate shot at winning the party's nomination.
Their concerns would fall on the shoulders of RNC chairman Reince Priebus, who emerged as the GOP's chief negotiator.
"I think it is fair to say that Donald Trump speaks for Donald Trump," Priebus said in early August, asked on "Meet the Press" whether he believed Trump was hurting the GOP's image. "And so no, I don't think it has anything to do with the Republican Party."
Days later, when a Fox News debate moderator asked the candidates for assurances they would back the primary winner and commit to foregoing a third party run, Trump demurred. It would take a month of haggling, but Priebus in September finally got billionaire pen to party paper on a "loyalty pledge," calling it a sign of "unity."
Trump, though, has repeatedly cast doubt on its conditions.
"I think [an independent campaign is] highly unlikely unless they break the pledge to me," Trump told CNN's Don Lemon in December. "But the establishment is not exactly being very good to me.
"Certainly all options are open."

Stage 4: Depression

"His numbness or stoicism, his anger and rage will soon be replaced with a sense of great loss." p.97, "On Death and Dying"
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With Trump maintaining or growing his advantage in the polls into September, a handful of the more high-brow, moderate pundits began to consider what the GOP stood to lose.
This week in The Atlantic, Molly Ball drew up a "Portrait of a Party on the Verge of Coming Apart."
In her story, Ball quotes a voter saying, "If we don't change right now, there are going to be repercussions."
If depression is anger turned inward, as many psychoanalysts believe, then some of the more recent attacks on Trump have taken on an unusual air of bleakness.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, in her response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union on Jan. 12, warned against following "the siren call of the angriest voices."
CNN commentator Amanda Carpenter called it "GOP self-loathing."

Stage 5: Acceptance

"Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happy stage. It is almost void of feelings. It is as if the pain had gone, the struggle is over, and there comes a time for 'the final rest before the long journey' as one patient phrased it." p.124
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The last horizon.
There has been scattered speculation on what a Trump general election campaign would look like, but most of the discussion today centers on whether Ted Cruz, now going toe-to-toe with front-runner, can succeed where so many others have failed. The two men, who had spent much of the nominating contest like fast friends, have turned on each other as the Iowa caucuses near.
Others, however, seem ready to be put out of their public misery.
Jeb Bush, Trump's favorite target and one of his earliest detractors, sounded more like an analyst than rival in his comments to Bloomberg's "Masters in Politics" podcast. Asked if he thought the U.K. should, as discussed on Monday, ban the billionaire from its shores, the son of one president and brother of another offered this resigned take on what comes next:
"I hope they don't do that," Bush says. "The better approach to this is that Donald Trump changes his ways...So, my hope is that Trump goes into rehab here. Rehab in terms of the language that he uses and makes his case based on his ideas and his experience and gets serious about running for president."
And then there is Bob Dole. The former Kansas senator and 1996 GOP nominee told the New York Times on Wednesday he thought Trump would be a more effective president than Ted Cruz. Not that he was particularly enthused by the prospect.
"Experience," Dole lamented, "is one thing that the voters don't seem to care about this cycle, and I don't know -- there's no substitute for experience."