Thomas L. Friedman: Will Trump force principled conservatives to start their own party? I hope so.

Even if just a few principled conservatives came together and created a kind of third party in Congress, they could be kingmakers.

As the Trump presidency heads into the sunset, kicking and screaming, one of the most important questions that will shape American politics at the local, state and national levels is this: Can Donald Trump maintain his iron grip over the Republican Party when he is out of office?

This is what we know for sure: He damn well intends to try and is amassing a pile of cash to do so. And here is what I predict: If Trump keeps delegitimizing Joe Biden’s presidency and demanding loyalty for his extreme behavior, the GOP could fully fracture — splitting between principled Republicans and unprincipled Republicans. Trump then might have done America the greatest favor possible: stimulating the birth of a new principled conservative party.

Santa, if you’re listening, that’s what I want for Christmas!

Wishful thinking? Maybe. But here’s why it’s not entirely fanciful: If Trump refuses to ever acknowledge Biden’s victory and keeps roasting those Republicans who do — and who “collaborate” with the new administration — something is going to crack.

There will be increasing pressure on the principled Republicans — people like Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and the judges, election officials and state legislators who put country before party and refused to buckle under Trump’s demands — to break away and start their own conservative party.

If that happens, the unprincipled Trump Republicans — like the 126 House members who joined with the Texas attorney general in a shameful Supreme Court case to nullify Biden’s victory could have a harder time winning office. That would be a good thing in its own right.

More important, even if just a few principled conservatives came together and created a kind of third party in Congress, they could be kingmakers. With the Senate so finely balanced, moderates on each side have significant leverage.

We just saw that with the relief bill negotiations, which Trump, on cue, is now threatening to undo. It was the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus — coalesced by the centrist movement No Labels — and an informal bipartisan group of senators that produced the deal from the bottom up.

Imagine Biden’s center-left Democrats and principled center-right conservatives working together on fixes for infrastructure, immigration, Obamacare or climate — without Trump around to disrupt any progress.

Wishful thinking? Maybe. But one thing I learned covering the Middle East is that there is only one reliable thing about extremists — they don’t know when to stop. So, in the end, they almost always go over the cliff, taking a lot of people with them.

Donald Trump is a political extremist. He does not stop at red lights. He does not abide by norms, ethics or the truth. As a result, his huge disinformation campaign against Biden’s election, and his attacks on Republican officeholders and right-wing media that won’t parrot his lies and conspiracy theories, is already fracturing the party at the state level in places like Georgia and Arizona.

It’s drawing a sharp distinction between principled Republicans who chose to put their constitutional obligations before Trump’s interests and the unprincipled ones who either are too cowardly to speak up or eagerly hopped into the Trump clown car to secure his blessings for their next election.

Think of two recent images. The first is of the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, on Dec. 15 briskly walking past a CNN reporter who was asking him a simple question: Would he acknowledge that Joe Biden was the president-elect? McCarthy was too cowardly or too unprincipled to answer.

If you’re a Republican lawmaker, do you really want to spend the next four years running away from CNN every time you’re asked to opine about the latest demented thing Donald Trump has said or done — because you’re afraid that he’ll launch a primary attack against you with his devoted base if you show integrity?

The contrasting image is of Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey. It’s Dec. 1 and Ducey is literally signing the papers certifying his state’s election results and officially awarding Biden its 11 electors — ignoring Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud in Arizona.

Ducey’s cellphone rings, but it is no ordinary ring tone. It is “Hail to the Chief,” a ring tone Ducey installed in July so that he would never miss a call from Trump. But this time Ducey simply takes the phone out of his pocket, silences it, puts it aside and goes on signing the papers.

According to a report in The Hill, “Trump later called into a hearing with state Republicans that was happening during the certification” and “tore into Ducey,” declaring, “Arizona will not forget what Ducey just did.” Trump was right, but not in the way he predicted.

On Saturday, CNN described the civil war that has broken out in Arizona: “GOP party leaders and elected officials who’ve gone all-in for Trump, backed by right-wing media, have relentlessly attacked those who can’t bring themselves to go along with the lame-duck president’s refusal to concede. To be sure, similar splits exist across the GOP nationwide. But the infighting in Arizona offers a clear picture of why some Republicans fear that if Trump continues stirring up and directing his followers once he’s out of office, the party may cripple itself at the state and local level.”

The story added: “‘Some Republicans have decided to file for divorce from reality, facts be damned,’ said Barrett Marson, a publicist who worked for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s political action committee. … Perhaps most notable in the subsequent salvos was a tweet from the governor’s chief of staff, Daniel Scarpinato, to ‘Freedom Caucus’ chair Rep. Andy Biggs calling him nuts and ending, ‘Enjoy your time as a permanent resident of Crazytown.’”

To be sure, calling Ducey a “principled Republican” is a low bar, considering that he had no problem backing Trump all the way until now. Unlike other Trump-friendly Republicans, though, he was ready to draw a constitutional redline he would not cross.

But every day that goes by Trump shows us that as his power decreases, he surrounds himself with more and more unprincipled crackpots, who fan his delusions and propose more and more extreme actions, like Michael Flynn’s neofascist suggestion of declaring martial law and rerunning the election in some states Trump lost.

Therefore, the stress that Trump creates will surely get only worse after he leaves the White House, when, to stay relevant, he’ll need to say ever more extreme things that keep his base — now fully marinated in his conspiracy theories — energized and ready to attack any principled Republican who deviates from Trump. Also, all those Fox News commentators who prostituted themselves to Trump (and their ratings), helping to make his extreme base even more extreme, can’t stop now. They’ll lose their audience.

They’re all extremists who can’t stop, and principled conservatives understand that. Listen to Evan McMullin, the former CIA operations officer and later chief policy director for the House Republican Conference, who resigned in 2016 to run for president as an independent:

“Even though Mr. Trump has been defeated, there is still no home for Republicans committed to representative government, truth and the rule of law, nor is one likely to emerge anytime soon,” wrote McMullin in this newspaper. “So what’s next for Republicans who reject their party’s attempts to incinerate the Constitution in the service of one man’s authoritarian power grabs? … The answer is that we must further develop an intellectual and political home, for now, outside of any party. From there, we can continue working with other Americans to defeat Mr. Trump’s heirs, help offer unifying leadership to the country and, if the Republican Party continues on its current path, launch a party to challenge it directly.”

Call me mad, but my gut tells me that when Trump is just the monarch of Mar-a-Lago — just spewing venom — some Republicans will say “enough.” Somewhere in there a new party of principled conservatives might just get born.

Wishful thinking? Maybe. But what a blessing that would be for America.

Thomas L. Friedman

Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.