As I fully expected them to, most of the institutional GOP has fallen into line behind their standard-bearer, whatever their private reservations. A handful of intellectuals – mostly neoconservatives who have long had ties to both parties – have openly defected to Clinton, which makes perfect sense since her foreign policy views are largely congenial to them, and foreign policy is what they care about most of all. But most of those who previously expressed disdain or alarm about Trump are being cajoled or bullied into supporting the nominee.
It is still possible that a down-the-line conservative will decide to mount a well-funded third-party campaign, but there is no chance that such a campaign would win any states, with the possible exception of Utah and Idaho, overwhelmingly Republican and Mormon-dominated states where both Clinton and Trump are deeply unpopular. Such a campaign’s only plausible purpose would be to hand Clinton a victory, and thereby demonstrate to Republicans that they dare not in the future nominate anyone who does not have the blessing of the conservative movement.
Whether the GOP would allow itself to be bullied in this manner may be questioned, though Trump’s own success may give the movement ideologues encouragement. But it’s highly doubtful that Trump’s own supporters will be similarly forgiving. And in the worst case, such a bid would, like Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign, permanently discredit the splinter faction. Regardless, a civil war thus engaged would be unlikely to end swiftly, or without malice toward those who launched it.
But is there a third-party challenge that could actually be viable?
The last two viable third-party challenges came from H. Ross Perot in 1992 and George Wallace in 1968. Perot’s opening came from the sullen aftermath of America’s first “jobless recovery,” that followed the recession caused by America’s first modern financial crisis (the collapse of the Savings and Loan industry), and resulting in a ballooning national debt. His main issue was deficit reduction. Wallace’s opening came from the split in the Democrats created by the Civil Rights Act and the surging national crime wave. His main issues were upholding white supremacy and restoring civil order. Both candidacies drew support from both of the major parties’ natural coalitions, and both facilitated the reshaping of those coalitions after their losses.
If the Republicans had nominated a “normal” candidate, then there would be any number of issues that could provide a platform for such a third-party candidate. The most obvious would be in foreign policy. Hillary Clinton may be the single most hawkish Democrat of major stature out there, and if she were facing off against Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush or Rick Perry, there would be ample room for a candidate opposed to international military adventures to get traction. Free trade and a relatively liberal immigration policy are two other areas where the candidates would be broadly in agreement – and where there would be room for a third-party challenger.
But Trump, of course, has made those very issues his own. It remains a very real question whether he truly cares about these – or any – issues, but the mere fact that he is running on them means that there is little room for a third party to seize their mantle.
So what could a viable third-party challenger run on? Perhaps the way to get at the answer is to ask: who is being excluded by the current set of major-party choices?
The most obvious answer is: younger voters. Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s primary victories were powered by older voters in their respective parties, and both candidates are distinctly unpopular among voters under 30. Younger voters do have distinct views and interests. They tend to be more dovish, less socially-conservative, more supportive of an active government role in the economy and yet less attached to entitlements that primarily benefit the elderly.
Overall, that sounds mostly like the profile of a part of the Democratic coalition – and, indeed, younger cohorts tend to be the least-Republican-leaning of voters. So a third-party candidacy aimed at winning these voters would just be taking a bite out of Clinton’s hide. Notwithstanding the supposed determination of some of Sanders’s voters never to reconcile with Clinton, I think the appetite for a left-liberal third party among any meaningful number of left-leaning voters is distinctly limited, and hence that such a campaign would never get off the ground.
But there are members of the conservative coalition who would also be sidelined by a Trump/Clinton contest. Anyone with a genuine concern for limited government has no choice that remotely represents their viewpoint. Ditto for anyone primary concerned with defending traditional religious beliefs or the autonomy of local institutions. Trump is a nationalist with authoritarian tendencies, while Clinton is a more traditional Democrat, but one with no particular history of empathy for civil-libertarian causes.
The above would suggest that there might be an opening for a libertarian candidate. Some libertarians hope for exactly that – and with Koch money behind him, Gary Johnson is about to test the proposition as well as it could possibly be tested. I’m skeptical mostly because libertarianism is generally marketed as a totalizing ideology that is appealing only to a tiny minority, and is frequently represented by cranks more concerned with promoting their pet conspiracy theories (generally involving some aspect of monetary policy) than with accomplishing anything – or even advancing their own purported ideas. Moreover, their backers are typically interested in tax reduction and regulatory relief more than anything, which are the part of the libertarian agenda that is least-likely to pull voters out of the Republican coalition. Inasmuch as most libertarians see themselves as part of that coalition, there is likely little appetite for a serious libertarian challenge that would throw the election to Clinton. To put it another way: the Rand Paul that some people imagined existed might have been an interesting alternative to the two major party candidates. The Rand Paul who actually exists is backing Trump. But we’ll see soon enough.
Is there a third-party perspective that would appeal to the hodgepodge of weirdos who read TAC? From one perspective, Donald Trump, by his victory, has vindicated many of the causes for which this magazine was founded in opposition to the conservative movement. From another perspective, he represents the final nail in the coffin of anything that can be called conservative. And it’s possible for both perspectives to be true.
For myself, I’ll be rooting for Hillary Clinton in November. I don’t like her, and I strongly disagree with her in the area – foreign policy – where she demonstrates the strongest convictions. But while, contra Robert Kagan, I don’t think Donald Trump actually represents an incipient fascism, I do think he’d make a disastrous president, and far worse than Hillary Clinton. And while I delighted at his destruction of a Republican leadership that most definitely deserved destroying, I kind of don’t want him to do the same to the United States of America.
But, particularly since Clinton is certain to win New York no matter what, I’ll definitely be looking at the other choices. And I would be happy if there were a viable small-is-beautiful voice – clean, devolutionist, tolerant and pacifistic – to throw my vote away on. Even though, really, I want the president to be someone colder and tougher-minded than, I don’t know, Zephyr Teachout.