How Conservatives Can Defeat Donald Trump
Andrew Sullivan is back, with a long piece in New York Magazine about how Donald Trump’s campaign is evidence of the decadence of our democracy and a harbinger of its possible end. I’m glad to see he’s his usual level-headed, temperate self. He concludes as follows:
[T]hose Democrats who are gleefully predicting a Clinton landslide in November need to both check their complacency and understand that the Trump question really isn’t a cause for partisan Schadenfreude anymore. It’s much more dangerous than that. Those still backing the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders, might want to reflect that their critique of Clinton’s experience and expertise — and their facile conflation of that with corruption — is only playing into Trump’s hands. That it will fall to Clinton to temper her party’s ambitions will be uncomfortable to watch, since her willingness to compromise and equivocate is precisely what many Americans find so distrustful. And yet she may soon be all we have left to counter the threat. She needs to grasp the lethality of her foe, moderate the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers him, make an unapologetic case that experience and moderation are not vices, address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class—and Democrats must listen.
More to the point, those Republicans desperately trying to use the long-standing rules of their own nominating process to thwart this monster deserve our passionate support, not our disdain. This is not the moment to remind them that they partly brought this on themselves. This is a moment to offer solidarity, especially as the odds are increasingly stacked against them. Ted Cruz and John Kasich face their decisive battle in Indiana on May 3. But they need to fight on, with any tactic at hand, all the way to the bitter end. The Republican delegates who are trying to protect their party from the whims of an outsider demagogue are, at this moment, doing what they ought to be doing to prevent civil and racial unrest, an international conflict, and a constitutional crisis. These GOP elites have every right to deploy whatever rules or procedural roadblocks they can muster, and they should refuse to be intimidated.
And if they fail in Indiana or Cleveland, as they likely will, they need, quite simply, to disown their party’s candidate. They should resist any temptation to loyally back the nominee or to sit this election out. They must take the fight to Trump at every opportunity, unite with Democrats and Independents against him, and be prepared to sacrifice one election in order to save their party and their country.
For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.
Regardless of whether Sullivan is right about the threat Trump poses to democracy (and I think he does pose a real risk, though as I’ve said before I think he’s more Berlusconi than Mussolini), this is not well thought out, because it doesn’t consider how the voters are likely to react to attempts to frustrate their exercise of the franchise. The evidence by this point should be overwhelming that the use of procedural tricks is backfiring, and strengthening Trump. Ted Cruz manages to snag all the delegates out of Colorado without an election, and Trump runs in New York and Pennsylvania on a platform of “the system is rigged against me” – and wins overwhelming landslide victories. Cruz and John Kasich form an anti-Trump pact and Trump’s numbers go up; it turns out Kasich voters actually liked their candidate as opposed to merely being “anti-Trump” voters – and that a clear majority of voters strongly disapprove of the pact. What makes Sullivan think that further shenanigans won’t strengthen Trump further?
I’ll make a prediction right here. If Trump is denied the nomination in 2016 because of procedural tricks – the latest trial balloon is denying delegates’ credentials – he’ll be elected President in 2020, either as a Republican or under the banner of a new party that replaces the Republicans. It’ll be 1828 all over again.
So how can Trump be stopped?
Well, it’s possible he can be stopped passively. Republicans could campaign in a lackluster fashion and let demographics do the work for Hillary Clinton. Then come back after Trump’s landslide loss and pick up the pieces. That is almost certainly what the institutional Republican Party is planning: to lose by not trying very hard.
There are just a few wee problems with this plan. First, if the Republican campaign is lackluster generally, then officeholders up and down the ballot will see their jobs at risk. That means that their interests will not be aligned with the interests of the leaders of the national party – and I’d guess they’ll follow their own interests when they see the conflict. Second, if the GOP campaigns in a lackluster fashion, that’ll give Clinton a freer hand, which, in turn will be obvious to GOP voters, who may get angry. And when they get angry, they may vote for Trump. And finally, isn’t this exactly how they planned to defeat Trump in the primary? How’d that work out for them?
If Sullivan is right, and Trump is an “extinction level event” for our republic, then sterner measures are called for. But if procedural tricks will backfire, what else can be done?
Fortunately, democracy itself provides two perfectly respectable and effective ways to defeat Donald Trump. But they both involve destroying the Republican Party.
The first option is for a rump conservative faction to bolt the party and run independently. They can make a very straightforward argument that Trump is in no sense a conservative: not only does he violate movement conservative shibboleths all over the place, but he has patently zero respect for the Constitution. He’ll be no better than Clinton on some issues, and worse on others, and besides he’s a personal disgrace. So vote your conscience, and vote for – I dunno, Cruz/Fiorina.
This would unquestionably elect Hillary Clinton as the next President. But the argument to conservatives would be that this is far less-bad than electing Trump. And they’d tell a happy story about how, in 2020, they could take back the party, run a real conservative, and win. Instead of dreading 1828, they’d be looking forward to 1920.
Unfortunately, that story will be a lie. Instead, after such a defection we’d see outright civil war, as both Trump die-hards and establishment Republicans see conservatives as having crossed an unforgivable rubicon. Letting them back in would be admitting that movement conservatives have an outright veto over every major party decision. Not to mention that Trump’s partisans would have been given a clear mandate to play exactly the same game in 2020, threatening to bolt if their guy doesn’t get the nod again, and a fair shot at a re-match. Instead of ceding one election to recover and return stronger, Republicans might permanently tear their party in two, and give the Democrats control of the Presidency for a generation.
The second option would be for notable Republicans to flat out support Hillary Clinton. Either leave the Republican Party or form “Republicans for Hillary” and stuff it with an ideological cross-section of party members. The group couldn’t just say “we can’t stand Trump” though – as the primaries should have amply demonstrated, you can’t beat something with nothing. It would have to say, “Hillary Clinton won’t be so bad.” Get a bunch of manufacturers to say that she understands the economy, and while they’d rather see a real Republican in charge, they prefer Clinton to Trump. Get a bunch of retired military brass to say that Clinton has a clear understanding of American interests and capabilities and a good relationship with the services, and that she’d make a perfectly acceptable Commander in Chief under whom they’d be proud to serve. Whereas Trump . . . Make the case that, while Clinton isn’t ideal, she’d certainly be an adequate President – hardly disastrous. She’d muddle through, and the country would muddle through, and that’s good enough.
The problem with this strategy, of course, is that it trashes the entirety of GOP messaging. The conventions of American partisanship in this day and age require outright apocalypticism about the opposing party. The Democrats can’t just be wrongheaded about this or that – they have to be outright aiming to destroy the United States of America. “Republicans for Hillary” would have to abandon a generation worth of demonization in an heartbeat.
Would many Republicans follow them? It’d be a test, in a way of just how Orwellian the party has become – how many would reliably declare that we have always been at war with Eurasia once their leaders told them it was so? Based on Trump’s performance in the primary so far, I’d say “not many.” But it wouldn’t have to be that many. There’s a big part of the country that is plainly really angry and ready to elect somebody manifestly unsuited to the office in order to express that anger. But it’s not a majority. In a baseline 50-50 nation, even the #NeverTrump contingent could swing an election.
The trouble comes later, when they try to go home again. Because in abandoning the party, they will have ceded it outright to Donald Trump. And they’ll have no obvious mechanism for winning it back, particularly not after a betrayal of that magnitude.
Which is why the leadership of the GOP is reconciling itself to Trump. They know that his victory means either vassalage or exile, and that’s not a very palatable choice. So they are either convincing themselves that he is not an “extinction-level event” or that, notwithstanding the impending end of the world, they know which side their bread is buttered on.
And right there in a nutshell is the problem with elites that Trump has been riding to victory.