Election End-Game — And Post-Season Predictions
I watched the final debate, and my impression was that Trump did fairly well when he got to be an angry critic of the bipartisan consensus, and did terribly when he had to advance any kind of proposition of his own. You might think this would mean that he’d do well ranting on his own television network — except that’s a space that is already pretty crowded, and not obviously growing. And I’m specifically not convinced Trump would know how to handle guests. Would congressional hopefuls really sign up to be contestants on Political Apprentice? I somehow doubt it. Anyway, potential investors in Trump TV should be appropriately skeptical.
The biggest headline from the debate, of course, was about Trump’s refusal to say that he’ll accept the results of an election he’s now extremely likely to lose. He’s now doubled down on that comment, to predictable outrage from anybody who still cares about American democracy. But in the end, I’m much less worried than commenters like Damon Linker that Trump will seriously undermine American democracy by refusing to concede. Rather, the bigger risk is that he will continue his destruction of the GOP. Because if Trump refuses to accept the election results, they will be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand, they could try to humor his supporters, holding hearings on voter fraud, promising to impeach Hillary Clinton within 100 days, promising to reject any legislation she proposes, filibustering her choices for the Supreme Court, etc. But this plays into Trump’s hand, keeping him relevant and giving him the power to pronounce that whatever they are doing is ineffective and weak and that if he were in charge Hillary would already be in prison. Moreover, a Trumpified GOP is already hemorrhaging educated white voters. That process will only accelerate if the GOP continues its policy of appeasement, with potentially dire consequences for 2018 and beyond.
On the other hand, if the GOP leadership clearly accepts the results of the election, and offers (however disingenuously) to work with the new President, they will likely face an outraged revolt by multiple parts of their base — not only by core Trump voters, but also those ideological conservatives who object to Trump’s deviations or his character but who want to see the GOP stand on conservative principle. Opportunists like Ted Cruz will greedily seize the megaphone to decry the sellout by the leadership even as they take pains to distinguish themselves from Trump.
Just as in the primaries, the GOP leadership faces a two-front war. They will want to avoid that war, and to reconcile on almost any terms in the interest of battling the “real” enemy. But reconciliation is impossible without the mutual respect that allows for negotiation to form a coalition, something manifestly lacking at present.
The only way out is true institutional and ideological reform, something the GOP leadership has vigorously resisted now for three presidential cycles. Trump has made that process much harder, but he has also made it all the more necessary.