Caricature by DonkeyHotey
A couple of days ago we tried to put the Trump phenomenon in perspective and understand how a celebrity figure with no obvious qualifications for the presidency could be on the verge of attaining the nomination of a major political party. We noted that Donald Trump had shrewdly appropriated the anger fomented by Republican leaders among economically and culturally insecure voters and is using it to propel his power fantasies. In the process he is busting apart the Republican Party, taking the assets of value to him and discarding the rest. Republican leaders are desperately determined to reclaim the party from his grasp, but by the time they recognized what was happening, Trump had amassed enough delegates either to win the nomination outright or come close enough to make the compelling claim that to deny him would be theft. This left party elites with only two realistic options: stop Trump from getting the nomination or hand the party to him. These choices could best be characterized, respectively, as catastrophic and cataclysmic.
Let’s consider each in turn.
Stopping Trump: This option is the preferred choice of #NeverTrump, those who believe that it is strategically better to maintain traditional conservative control of the Republican Party regardless of the short-term costs. It has been clear for some weeks that if Republicans are going to prevent Donald Trump from being their nominee, they are going to have to stop him at the convention. Less clear is how to accomplish this goal. It will be easier to do if Trump arrives in Cleveland with less than a delegate majority, in which case it may be possible to undermine his delegate support over multiple ballots. Efforts are underway at the state level by anti-Trump forces to select free agent delegates nominally pledged to Trump who would abandon him on a potential second ballot and on procedural matters, and “zombie delegates” pledged to candidates now out of the race who can support anyone they want. Even if Trump arrives with 1,237 delegates, the rules of the convention have yet to be written, so it is still possible for the Convention Rules Committee to place obstacles in his path provided anti-Trump forces can successfully stack the committee.
This is the catastrophic choice because it would almost certainly mean conceding the election. Denying Trump the nomination under these circumstances would validate everything he has said about the Republican establishment and would create an irreconcilable rift in a base already hopelessly divided between radicals and conservatives. Trump would thunder out of the convention and take his supporters with him. He could entertain running on an established third party line or as an independent if he were willing to pay the cost of ballot access in states where the registration deadline hadn’t passed. Or he could encourage his supporters to stay home to punish the Republican Party down ballot. He would almost certainly threaten to sue.
The potential for chaos and long-term damage to the party brand is evident. So what could be worse than this outcome? How about . . .
Letting Trump Claim the Nomination. In 2012, Donald Trump endorsed Mitt Romney, yet he was denied a prime time speaking slot at the Republican Convention to keep him out of the spotlight. Now imagine for a second how a Trump acceptance speech would sound. As soon as he claimed the nomination, the Republican Party would become his party, and Trump would be free to fashion it in his image. The battle between reactionaries and conservatives would have been won by the reactionaries, rendering economic, social and foreign policy conservatives homeless. A Trump victory would give him control of a party organization that served the interests of movement conservatives for decades. They would be forced to endorse him and defend everything he says and does or look for a temporary home elsewhere, possibly by running a conservative candidate on another party line. This is the cataclysmic choice because it would result in the loss of the election and the loss of the party, permitting Trump to trash the Republican brand while setting up a gargantuan struggle for what’s left of the party after the election.
It’s worth keeping in mind that conventions since 1968 have been carefully scripted media events. They generated no news and served as four-day infomercials for the national ticket. Parties rely on them to set the tone for the general election and provide the presidential and vice presidential nominees a positive send-off. That we are likely going to Cleveland without a clear sense of how this is going to end is in its own right remarkable. That the best possible outcome would be a divided convention without Trump at the helm is an indicator of how far from conventional this convention is likely to be. This is no longer about salvaging the election for the Republican Party and only marginally about saving Republicans up and down the ballot. It is about whether the reactionaries or the conservatives will be in charge of what’s left of the party after this crisis passes.