As the Donald Trump juggernaut remains on course for winning the Republican nomination, a repeated refrain has been to blame the Republicans for not having acted early enough to stop Trump’s rise. If prominent politicians, Super-PACs, and other members of the “GOP Elite” (so the argument goes) had launched concerted attacks om Trump at an early stage, they could have prevented him from ever achieving front-runner status. Failing that, they should at least close ranks behind a single unified anti-Trump candidate – or make plans for selecting a completely different compromise candidate, if the process ends in a brokered convention where no candidate holds a majority.
Others, such as Vox’ Ezra Klein, have argued that the party elites have in fact done everything they can in this respect – and that to the extent that they’ve held back, it’s been because of a genuine and rational fear that their efforts might end up boosting Trump instead.
It’s a fairly established consensus by now that one main cause of Trump’s surge is that he’s tapped into a long-simmering anger against all forms of political elites and establishment. The discrepancy between between voters’ sky-high disapproval ratings for Congress and the high rate of re-election for the same congressmen has been pointed out for a long time – and the natural explanation is that they’ve simply been waiting for a sufficiently high-profile anti-establishment candidate to let them express their rage at the ballot box.
And if this is a primary source of Trump’s support, any effort from the establishment to condemn him, or hammer home his outsider status, might simply play into his hands by emphasising his anti-establishment credentials. As long as there was a reasonable expectation that Trump would flame out (like previous oddball candidates such as Herman Cain and Ben Carson), the wisest strategic choice seemed to be to leave him to his own devices – and now that the reality of a Tump nomination is looming, it’s hard to combat someone who is likely to feed off your attacks, and even harder to influence a voting block which simply doesn’t give a damn about your advice to them.
Another, less charitable, explanation is that the GOP are reluctant to act decisively because they’re afraid that if they antagonize Trump, he’ll hit back by attacking the party’s nominee and make it impossible for them to win in November. The campaign has made it increasingly clear that a Trump defeat in the primaries will be accompanied by a whirlwind of allegations from Trump of the party having stopped him through vote-rigging, unfair attacks, or other underhanded tactics.
And if Trump actually arrives at the convention with a clear lead in delegates, but is denied the nomination by a brokered convention, we can except a full-on assault from Trump. This would very possibly include Trump considering his pledge to the party null and void and running as an independent – thus handing the Democrats victory on a plate and potentially triggering a permanent schism in the GOP.
But there’s also an (arguably far-fetched, but not utterly outlandish) extension to this argument, which says that the party elites wouldn’t stop Trump even if they could – not because they want to have him as the party’s nominee to face Clinton/Sanders, but because they see it as the lesser evil among the options they’re faced with.
If we accept that Trump’s rise is a product of a large bloc of angry voters, it’s hardly likely that this anger is going to dissipate if the Trump supporters see their man strong-armed out of the race by the GOP “elite”, or denied the nomination by backroom shenanigans at a brokered convention. Even without Trump’s inevitable fanning of the flames, the fury at feeling ‘cheated’ (or ‘stabbed in the back‘, even) is going to continue to fester until the next election cycle and beyond. In this scenario, the GOP isn’t just going to face a loss of supporters that will mean certain defeat in the 2016 elections, but the very real probability that they will have to face the same populist insurgency at the next hurdle.
Even if Trump is too old to run again in 2020, there will almost certainly be others who will see their chance to follow the trail he blazed – and maybe tone down the antics just enough that it becomes impossible for the party to disavow them. After all, they’ll have a large segment of voters to target who 1) have a long-standing resentment of the ‘elites’, which has been even further inflamed by their treatment of Trump, 2) have realized that they actually do have the power to define a nomination process, and 3) are convinced that they could have actually won the White House if they hadn’t been thwarted by their own party.
That’s a very potent combination for a neo-Trumpist to tap into, and also a situation that has historical precedent: In 1968, the power-brokers at the Democratic Convention chose Hubert Humphrey as the ‘establishment’ nominee, despite the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy having gained a majority of support from the primaries. The result was not just a root-and-branch reform of the primaries to reduce the influence of the elites, but also the nomination four years later (and subsequent defeat in the general election) of George McGovern, arguably the most left-wing nominee of the modern era.
As Nate Silver points out, this primary season has already flouted so many established rules that it’s hard to make any sort of definite predictions about November. But it remains the credible majority view that Trump has alienated so many important voter groups (including within the GOP), and will have such an unprecedented mobilizing effect on Democratic voters, that he’s extremely unlikely to actually win the presidency.
Furthermore, there’s a plausible case to be made that this year’s Republican nomination has already become a poisoned chalice – that the split within the party is so deep thar no nominee stands a realistic chance of beating the Democrat nominee.
The idealist might call this all the more reason to force out Trump, and at least lose with dignity if a loss is inevitable. But there’s also an opposite approach – to say that precisely for this reason, it’s palatable to allow Trump the nomination and have him suffer that loss. Of course, this whole line of reasoning relies on the gamble that Trump’s candidacy will mobilize so many opposing voters that he in fact does lose. A Trump win against the odds would not only be a disaster for the country, but also mean a permanent and irrevocable reshaping of the GOP. But for those conservatives that are vehemently opposed to ‘Trumpism’ in general, that risk could be seen as necessary to lance the boil of an insurgency that would otherwise keep festering within the party.
Another defeat of an “electable” Republican nominee (after McCain and Romney), will be seen as further proof of a failed strategy and of the need for a radically different approach. Conversely, if swing voters and disaffected Democrats turn out en masse to deal Trump a Mondale-vs-Reagan style defeat and elect Hillary Clinton in a landslide, the GOP elire will have (and take) every opportunity to say: “OK, we tried your approach, that clearly didn’t work, now will you please go back to being sensible voters and follow our advice?”.
Obviously, a Trump nomination will not be without cost, and the party will be tainted for a long time by his bigotry and antics. But as Jeet Heer previously pointed out, the Trump movement (if there even exists such a thing) is an extremely inchoate entity, with no ideological organization within the party. This leaves room to hope that a Trump nomination – unlike, say, a Cruz one – will not be able to install supporrers in key party positions before collapsing, or that these supporters will be fair-weather Trumpists that will fall back into line once Trump’s star fades.
GOP moderates will be hoping that by making a clean and very public break with Trump (and no doubt insisting that they’ve heard and accepted the electorate’s emphatic rejection of Trump) they will be able to limit the damage to the party brand. The more radical sections of the party, meanwhile, can hope that a Trump run will have shifted the political boundaries so far that their own (previously ‘fringe’) views now become perceived as mainstream and reasonable when contrasted with Trump.
The fallout and damage from a Trump nomination, and the alienation of many potential Republican voters and activists, wil obviously be sizeable no matter what. And if one sees Trump as an unique aberration (a “Mule”, in Jeet Heer’s Asimov-inspired parlance), it makes sense to make every effort – even at great cost – to stop Trump and restore the natural political order.
But if Trump is instead perceived as an predictable result of long-term political shifts, the choice is far less clear-cut. If you subscribe to the “pressure-cooker theory” (of people’s views becoming ever more intense and radicalised when they feel themselves denied political expression), then it’s possible to see a Trump nomination (and subsequent defeat in the general election) as the lesser of two evils – and a preferable option to leaving these sentiments bottled up and ripe to be exploited by a future (and potentially more electable) demagogue.