The Wall Street Journal editorial board recently wrote that “[Donald Trump] and his allies mean to purge the Ryan wing of the GOP from the new Trump Party.” I suppose this is a natural outgrowth of the anger and intemperateness that characterized the GOP base when it chose Trump as the party’s standard bearer in the first place, some of whom actually told me during the primaries that they just wanted to “blow up the GOP” and didn’t care how they did it. They were clear in their view that the Republican Party “deserved to die” and that they’d rather destroy it than see a moderate Republican, any moderate Republican (the kind they call “RINOs”) nominated for the presidency. Disgusted with compromisers and gentlemanly campaigners of the John McCain-Mitt Romney sort and abhorring the last Republican president George W. Bush — mostly for their perceived willingness to seek immigration reform and for failing to deliver on promises to end the presidency of Democrat Barack Obama, or roll back his agenda (a “failure” they ascribe to Republican leaders in Congress as well) — this hardcore group of GOP primary voters, some 40% of the party’s base, swung the nomination to Donald Trump, the New York billionaire and one man wrecking crew who now leads the party his followers reviled. Apparently, given his recent remarks and behavior, he feels much the same way.
Trump supporters want him to wreck the existing status quo in Washington but, at least as much and maybe even more, they want him to wreck the existing Republican Party. They imagine the rest of the country shares their outrage and that those of us they call RINOs (I guess that’s me, too) are simply traitors to that cause. Like traitors to any cause, we must be eliminated. Believing Trump can win in the general election by expressing their rage, they seem to see little to object to in Trump’s current crusade to purify the GOP. The only problem with their scenario, which has the country rising up behind the inflammatory Trump, is that not all voters really do think as they think or revile Hillary as they do. Even those who aren’t extremely enthusiastic for the Democratic nominee are considerably less enthused for Donald Trump whose continued erratic behavior gives them plenty of reason to distrust and dislike him.
And that’s the rub for, as Trump continues to give them reason to feel this way, with every new tweet and free-form attack he launches from the podium before adoring crowds or on call-ins to cable news shows, his chances of capturing the White House slip farther and farther from his grasp and from that of the Republican Party he was supposedly selected to lead. In recent days we’ve seen what can only be described as an out-of-control candidate Trump throwing his weight around with increasing abandon within the Republican Party that nominated him. Disregarding the needs and niceties of post-convention unification, which any normal GOP nominee would now be pursuing in order to win in the general, Trump’s taken off after those GOP leaders who haven’t yet expressed or demonstrated sufficient loyalty to his person.
The Republican nominee appears to be a man who treasures personal loyalty above all else, defining it by the amount of deference he is shown — and by the respect accorded his every statement. He is routinely spoken of as “Mr. Trump,” even by close supporters, as if he stands on a higher plane. He apparently takes that as his due. On the other hand, he routinely disparages Republicans who have not sufficiently abased themselves before his “leadership” by expressly supporting his every word and statement (see his attacks on the sitting Republican governor of New Mexico Susanna Martinez and on Maine Senator Kelly Ayotte as well as on Arizona Senator John McCain — and, of course, there’s House Speaker Paul Ryan whose primary opponent Trump has publicly praised). The Wall Street Journal’s editors may be right for Trump and his devotees really do seem bent on blowing up the historic alliance of conservative Americans that has been the backbone of the GOP since Ronald Reagan’s time.
In the United States political parties are grand coalitions of different interest groups and factions — because ours is not a parliamentary system where post-election coalitions make sense — and the GOP has been an alliance of many types of American conservative, from free trading economic libertarians (who favor old fashioned small government and limited impingement on citizens) to social and religious conservatives (who admire the communal culture and values of America’s past) to constitutionalists (who favor a strict reading of that document to remain consistent with the intentions of the nation’s framers) to fiscal conservatives and to those who believe in a strong American presence overseas. Mixed in with these types of conservatism, and often cutting across the lines which divide them, there is another line of thought. It’s protectionist (opposing libertarian free trade), nativist (believing America should be preserved for those already here) and isolationist (rejecting American engagement abroad).
People in the protectionist/nativist/isolationist camp, as it happens, also tend to favor the welfare state as those on the left do, only those on the right want the benefits of that state reserved for those who are part of America’s existing culture and not spread round to newcomers. The interests of conservative principalists are thus at odds with the interests of these others, best described as conservative populists, and now those differences have surged to the fore, prompting what may well be an historic civil war within the GOP.
As protectionism, nativism and isolationism rise, the older conservative alliance of libertarianism, fiscal prudence, constitutionalism and respect for traditional American values stands to be ripped apart, the new lines of force realigning the GOP and pushing some of the older conservative types out of the coalition they formerly shared. Donald Trump has become the focal point for this realignment. But he isn’t its cause for he is what, and where, he is solely because he reflects those stress lines in conservatism which always lay just below the surface of the coalition Reagan built. Trump has come now to shatter that alliance and, in doing so, to shatter the once grand Republican Party. If Donald Trump, having secured the nomination, had then sought to rebuild the old coalition by making a place for its diverse elements in a new, larger “tent” that included those who think as he does (that America needs walls, whether against Mexico or in trading with other nations), there might have been some prospect for preserving and even enlarging the GOP. Things might have been different. But Trump has gone his own way. Where he might have worked to find a way to construct accommodations for all sides in the party he now leads — he claims to be in the construction business, after all — he has, instead, only continued to demonstrate just how divisive he really is. And not just for the nation at large but for the GOP itself.
Trump’s post-nomination behavior breaches historic norms. We don’t want business as usual his supporters frequently intone, we want to break things, use a wrecking ball, and The Donald lives up to that ideal. Unable to work and play well with others, Trump has taken his “blow it all up” campaign into the inner workings of the very party that nominated him, continuing to strike out at anyone who doesn’t knuckle under to his will. In Georgia an Elector named Baoky Vu recently resigned his position in the Electoral College representing his state because, he said: “Donald Trump’s antics and asinine behavior have cemented my belief that he lacks the judgment, temperament and gravitas to lead this Nation.” Even Republicans are dismayed by what the obdurate 40% of their own base have wrought with this year’s presidential nomination. And as Trump continues to pick fights with critics and other non-fans, from veterans’ parents to his own GOP colleagues, as he continues to behave increasingly erratically, Republicans face a major disaster in November. And a choice: Stick with this divisive and antagonistic nominee or cut him loose and run for cover. But where to run?
One possibility is to embrace the Libertarian alternative (reflecting one historic strain within the old GOP conservative coalition) and shift en mass to support former Republican governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson and his running mate, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld who are free enterprise, small government types with a socially liberal slant. This may not appeal to cultural conservatives of the old school, of course, but then their alternative is to hang in there with a visibly mean-spirited, petty, would-be demagogue who has committed adultery publicly several times and generally behaved badly in a myriad of other ways. Members of the culturally conservative religious right now have a choice of sticking with a known sinner or going with a ticket that holds that sin is finally a private matter, between man and the Almighty, not man and government.
Alternatively Republicans who can no longer stomach this year’s nominee can take even more drastic action and seek to nominate a new Republican candidate for the presidency in an expedited fashion (to ensure a presence on all 50 state ballots), leaving Trump to the 40% or so of primary voters that still think as he does. This would turn what now seems to be a two party and maybe a three party general election race into a five-way presidential sweepstakes (because of the additional presence in this year’s race of Green Party candidate Jill Stein, a nominee with a limited resume and no chance of altering the outcome of the general).
A five-way race would be unprecedented, at least since the 1800’s of course, and therefore unpredictable, but it wouldn’t be untenable. In a five-way race, with two highly unlikeable candidates heading both major parties, the odds of anyone collecting enough electoral votes to win the presidency in the general would be small, increasing the chances of throwing this election into the House of Representatives where, according to the Constitution, Congress gets to select the next president. A mere three-way race (because the Greens are too weak to have much effect) runs a greater risk of devolving to the two major parties if a third party candidate can’t secure enough electoral votes to deny a majority to either of the major party candidates. In a five-way race, with substantial GOP defections from the Trump camp, there would likely be enough division in the popular vote, and thus the Electoral College, to prevent anyone from gaining the requisite number of Electoral votes. Then presidential selection devolves, under the Constitution, to the House of Representatives which currently has a substantial Republican majority and is led by Speaker Ryan.
Selection of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as our next president, in the House, would not be a given, making “third party” candidates with a national presence like Gary Johnson (a former GOP governor) or an as yet unknown but competitive alternative Republican nominee, viable. Either would have a better chance of winning the congressional nod than the bomb throwing Donald Trump or the much distrusted and widely disliked Democrat Hillary Clinton. This election year has been a doozy so far. Who’s to say it can’t get even stranger?