Before we start, this piece isn’t meant as an endorsement of Donald Trump or his policies/proposals, but rather a look at how disastrously mismanaged opposition to Donald Trump has been.
It’s important to start this post with the caveat: like most other people who comment on politics, I did not predict that Donald Trump would rise to be the Republican nominee. At the outset, I found his candidacy to be a farce and a mockery of the political process. In fact, my initial critique was that his was a “sideshow” that would demean the process and eventually hamper the eventual nominee with having to prove that the Party was serious about the election. I, like many others, was wrong in this regard. Now, not to pat myself on the back too hard, but if you look back in this blog’s entries, I think you’ll see we started talking about Trump’s candidacy with seriousness only a month or so after he officially entered the race. We then went on to rank Trump at the top of our “Power Rankings” for the majority of the weeks that list was published (obviously, with only three contenders left, and we know how they stack up, there’s no real need for the rankings).
Now, there are a few narratives we should look at here before diving into “Never Trump.” The first is actually the “party decides” narrative was broken before people realized it.
The Party Decides Narrative
“The Party Decides” is a book by Marty Cohen, et al. that traces the development of he modern nomination process for the Presidency. The (eponymous) conclusion is that the Party (that is, the institutional members) through endorsements and connections, effectively decides who the nominee will be. While this shorthand does not do justice to the scholarly research done for the book, the conclusion is common-sensical: the people who have reached positions of power have done so through their connections and through a path that can be used to help others. An institutional consensus is reached and doors are opened for only certain individuals. Without endorsing or condemning these machinations, they are eminently understandable: why re-invent the wheel on electoral politics.
The proverbial “handwriting on the wall” for the breakdown of this narrative occurred sometime in the lead up to the 2012 election. Now, in retrospect, we can see several different factors that could have contributed to it. Let’s go through a few of them.
The Lack of a “Strong, Loyal Second”: Since the elections of the 1960s (with the exception of 1996), the Republican “runner up” in the previous contested primary has become the nominee in the subsequent contested primary.
In 1968, Governor Reagan ran unsuccessfully against former Vice President Nixon (Reagan would also run against incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976). Reagan would be the nominee in 1980. Vice President Bush became the nominee in 1988 defeating Senator Bob Dole. Senator Dole was the nominee in 1996. 1996 is an important election to remember when considering 2016 because the insurgent candidacies of both Pat Buchannan and Steve Forbes were vanquished. In 2000, Governor Bush defeated Senator John McCain, who would go on to be the nominee in 2008 defeating Mitt Romney. Romney would go on to be the nominee in 2012.
But something interesting happened in 2012, the closest “runner-up” to Romney was Rick Santorum (or Ron Paul, who we’ll talk about in a moment). Santorum’s harsh social conservatism and “unelectability” (he got clobbered trying to run for re-election to his Senate seat in Pennsylvania before trying for the White House) made it clear that he would not be a contender in 2016.
So, the Republican “establishment” was left with a daunting scenario (because Jeb Bush and Chris Christie both declined to run): there was no “heir apparent” to take up the mantle in 2016. Retrospectively, it does appear that the “correct” choice for the “Party Decides” folks would have been to have Romney run again. Instead, a jumbled mess of “insiders” decided 2016 would be their year and effectively suffocated the debate.
Ron Paul’s Influence: Much can be said, for good or for ill, about the policies and ideas of former Congressman Ron Paul. You can hear many of the rhetorical arguments (while not policy ones) made by Paul in the speeches of Democrat Bernie Sanders. Paul, who had a pure and consistent libertarian record, stood up to Party elites in both the 2008 and 2012 elections.
While the internet and social media had played a significant part in elections as early as 2000, Paul’s mastery of the “money bomb” concept as well as engagement with individual voters through social media was, in a sense, revolutionary. On the one hand, this engagement was helpful to Paul, who could now defy a lack of media coverage in order to get his ideas out to voters. On the other hand, it allowed the fringe elements of the internet to co-opt parts of Paul’s message and make him seem less-electable.
Paul’s engagement with voters outside of the normal Party apparatus was an important step to preparing the groundwork for what could be an expansive opening of the Republican Party. It also undermined the institutional control over the Party’s decision making. Paul’s supporters, well-aware that the Party changed the rules at the RNC Convention to deny Paul a spot on the ballot, understand all-too-well the backstabbing that is Republican politics. They also still have a sickening feeling inside of them whenever they think how Republican insiders treated them and their candidate for two election cycles in a row.
The Tea Party and its Co-Opting: Originally a quasi-anti-tax movement (TEA literally being “Taxed Enough Already”) was started by Ron Paul and then branched out in 1,000 different directions. While today the Tea Party exists on the hard-conservative fringes, there was a populist sentiment the swept through voters in 2010 that catapulted Republicans to positions of prominence (see: Rubio, Marco).
The point isn’t to say that the Tea Party led to the breakdown of the “Party Decides” metric. Rather, the GOP beat the Tea Party. In most of the elections where “Tea Party” candidates tried to run against incumbents, the incumbents successfully retained their seats. As we see in the 2016 Senatorial elections, however, there was a significant Republican wave (Republicans are defending 24 of the 33 seats up this year– all were elected in 2010). In effect, the “establishment” benefited from the enthusiasm of the Tea Party.
However, once the Tea Party movement had successfully delivered elections to the GOP, it was promptly abandoned and disowned by Republicans in Washington who all but admitted to using voters to advance the Party and not to address what voters were concerned about. People who voted in 2010 (and, to a lesser extent in 2012 and 2014) under the guise of trying to take back America saw Republicans capitulating on major issues.
Whacko Birds: In a series of several filibusters, Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz brought the national spotlight onto important issues. While Paul’s was, by all accounts, the more principled stand (don’t drone Americans abroad without due process), Cruz’s was painted as obstructionist (the 2013 government shutdown). For both, however, the likes of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham railed against Cruz and Paul (both first-term Senators) for their apparent disregard to the “way things are done” in Washington. Voters took note.
The Ouster of Boehner: Late last year, amid back room deals and palace intrigue, former Speaker of the House John Boehner faced a coup. Members of the “House Freedom Caucus,” a loose coalition of social conservatives and libertarians decided that they had enough support to either call for a vote to oust the Speaker or choke all of the remaining proceedings in the House to a standstill.
This “intransigence” on behalf of elected conservatives threw DC Republicans into a rage. In order to “keep the lights on,” Boehner had to get Democrats to support his bills. Thus, to the average Republican voter, the most powerful Republican in Washington would rather make deals with Nancy Pelosi (the Democrat leader) than with elected conservatives standing by their (intransigent or not) principles.
Birtherism Wasn’t About Obama’s Birth Certificate: We have seen from the beginning of Donald Trump’s angling for the White House that his best method of attacking his opponents isn’t a frontal assault but rather through corruption. What “corruption” means in this context is, literally, watching something rot. Trump has been a master at planting seeds of doubt then letting the seeds sprout and destroy the public confidence in individuals or policies.
The Party Decides Narrative Breaks: The foregoing are all examples (and not an exhaustive list) of the realities that have impacted the “base” of the Republican Party. We cannot, merely, assume that each election cycle presents a clean slate from which the Party can build its claim to the nomination. The “Republican Brand” has been tainted for some of its most die-hard adherents. Trust in, not only government, but also in the institutions of the Party are at all-time lows. Without an “anointed” standard bearer who voters had been exposed to before, and given the inherent mistrust of the GOP, voters were primed for supporting a nominee who would fly in the face of what they’ve been told to think by the Republican Party.
“Never Trump” Fundamentally Mis-Diagnoses the Problem
If you’re unfamiliar with “Never Trump,” it’s a message on social media that intends to say that Donald Trump’s candidacy has so co-opted the Republican Party that the same would be wholly broken an unrecognizable with Trump as the nominee.
The response to this characterization comes in three, general, varieties: “Yes, Trump must be stopped”; “Yes, the Party had this coming, they’ve forgotten us and it needs to be reformed”; and “You’re all just being dramatic for the sake of getting clicks on your online articles.” (We will discount the last sentiment even though there’s a strong case to be made that this is reality on the grounds that we are exploring the reasons why “Never Trump” is the wrong messaging).
The call to oppose Trump is one of great catharsis for “conservative” pundits (using quotes here to distinguish from “mainstream media” commentators). There’s a haughty “I told you so” lingering somewhere in the distance amid the soft paean of lute playing while the Party burns.
But is the Party really burning, or is it just the people who are loudest?
To that point, we look at the current delegate math. Ted Cruz has become the “anti-Trump du jour,” but, until very recently, he was lumped in with Trump as being a catastrophe. (Let’s not say that the two men are the same, they are not. However, for the purposes of the piece, I think we can all agree that both men decided to run for office as outsiders). In effect, over 75% of the delegates allotted so far (3/18/16) in the race have gone to either Trump or Cruz.
While Donald Trump may be the “sum of all fears” for the GOP establishment having taken human form, the reality is that the electorate by a wide majority have cast their votes against the status quo. Now, we have to include the caveat here that votes are, presumptively, “positive” (that is: a vote for Trump is +1 for Trump not -1 for Cruz) rather than “negative.” It’s a fallacy to say that all of the votes case for outsiders are case for the outsider because the voter opposes insiders. However, voters, having the choice between more “establishment” Republicans and “outsiders” have picked the outsiders.
Consequently, at first blush, the “conservative” punditry (the same authors who cajoled and pushed the Tea Party to vote Republican) has misjudged. Their thought is that voters in the GOP primary should either 1) follow the Buckley Rule (vote for the most conservative candidate who can win in a general election) or 2) vote for the social conservative.
Tangent: A brief discussion of Donald Trump and the Buckley Rule. It’s impossible to know, and far too early to make an educated guess, about the outcome of a general election between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Current polling, contrary to Trump’s suggestions, indicates he would likely have an uphill battle against Hillary. If you look at results of polling in 2008 (McCain v. Obama) and 2012 (Romney v. Obama), the polls in March that measure the presumptive frontrunner versus the Democrat are fairly close to the final outcome. If that trend were to hold in 2016, Hillary would be the most likely President.
However, Donald Trump’s counter argument to this is that he will win in states where Republicans might have not won in a generation: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. His logic is that his brand of “conservative on some issues, but willing to negotiate” appeals to middle Americans, blue collar Democrats (and eventually to minorities looking for work) more than high-minded social programs and government intervention in the lives of citizens.
This is the perfect storm of terrible logic for the conservative punditry interpreting the Buckley Rule; either: 1) Trump loses badly or 2) he’s willing to compromise on conservative principles. Thus, in their minds, he cannot be the most conservative candidate who can also win in November.
The fault in this logic is that it might (again, we don’t have enough information at this point) misjudge the needs of the Republican Party. The “typical” Republican base is shrinking and there’s been no one to build on the “Reagan coalition” of Southerners, educated white males, and Christian conservatives for decades. That vote share is aging and decreasing. Within 20 years, given current demographic shifts, the GOP will not be able to win the Presidency. The question, thus, becomes: can Donald Trump so shift the electoral dynamic so as to grow the Republican base? (The obvious negative corollary is: will Trump accelerate the Party’s decline?)
There’s is evidence to support cautious optimism as to Trump’s ability to grow the Party. Already, as Trump often notes, turnout in the Republican Primaries is setting records. This could be, in part, to the quasi-reality-television zeitgeist, but, less-cynically, Trump has (for good or ill), gotten more people involved in the political process. Whether this will translate to the general election is wholly unknown at this point, but, again, there’s cause for optimism.
Back on Topic: “Never Trump” Misses the Mark
No one likes to be called dumb. Let’s get that out there first and foremost. The majority of people who go out to vote have a sufficient amount of information at their disposal to make a reasoned choice. You may think their reasons are foolish, but, to them, they have made a conscious decision to support a candidate. Belittling the choice that they have made is not just bad politics (and just being a slimy human being) but also bad strategy.
The condescension of pieces wherein the authors say “Trump is a con man who has fooled people into supporting him” implies, even if the author doesn’t lay blame at the feet of voters, that voters are gullible or foolish for being “duped” by Trump. Are there people who just buy into politicians on the basis of the politician’s celebrity? Sure, we all know that. However, this phenomenon is certainly not exclusive to Trump (I’m sure you can think of politicians, even during this election cycle, whose rhetoric and promises are appealing to lower-information voters). However, the people who go out to vote in primary elections are a smaller and (statistically) better-informed than the larger group that votes in the general election. As a consequence, chalking up someone’s reasoned choice as a result of chicanery is a terrible move.
The “Never Trump” movement is something of an “astroturf” creation. Ostensibly, this means that it’s a top-down creation rather than bottom-up. The DC opinion-shaper class within the Party (that plays a tremendously important role in providing a counterpoint to traditional media sources), has been the epicenter of the burgeoning opposition to Trump. The consequence of this is that it gives the whole movement an appearance of being an orchestrated attempt at control rather than a natural response to perceived failures of the conservative movement.
In fairness to the majority of Trump opponents within the “Never Trump” GOP elite (and pundit classes), they probably actually hold the same views that they write and comment about. However, the visceral nature of the attacks sheds light on an important dissonance between those who thought they shaped opinion and the common voter. The harshness is as if the opinion shapers expected to be obeyed and now find themselves spiraling away from the voters who they thought they controlled (this verbiage may be too forceful, but the sentiment/psychology is accurate).
“Never Trump” and the Unity Problem
Let’s be clear “unity” doesn’t mean “unify behind my guy or I leave.” For years (especially for those of us who supported Ron Paul, see the issues above), the Party has demanded loyalty to the nominee and stifled dissent. Now, at least if the math holds, the proverbial tables have turned. Declining to support the nominee (whoever that person may be) is certainly someone’s right and they should not be harried for that decision. However, starting a concentrated movement to, effectively, toxify the environment reeks of “scorched earth” politics (“If I can’t have my way, no one can”).
This isn’t to say everyone should just knuckle-under and sign off on Donald Trump (or anyone else). However, it is saying that poisoning the well is irresponsible, especially for those who have seen it as their duty to guide voters’ opinions.
It’s also not far-fetched to imagine that, should Donald Trump want to do so, a “Never Republican” movement would probably get more steam than “Never Trump.” Given the vitriol on both sides, voters are more likely to abandon the Party during a collapse than side with the establishment that has proven itself incapable and unresponsive.
It’s a difficult time for the Republican Party and it is unclear exactly what the Party will look like after 2016. However, given significant demographic shifts that the Party was going to undergo anyway, a tectonic realignment was on the horizon. If the Party can successfully mend its differences while also expanding the types of voters who identify as Republicans, the Party may be able to sustain itself for years to come.
The concentrated efforts by people who, at least from all evidence, should know better, to poison the political atmosphere of the Party is neither becoming nor smart politics. While Trump and some of his more vocal followers also perpetuate some part of the difficult climate, there is a chance for the Party to grow beyond the coalition established decades in the past. While “Never Trump” may be a cathartic expression of disgust for now, the consequence may be the voters deciding Republicans nevermore.