What Is the Trump Endgame?

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Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Mobile, Alabama
Donald Trump entertains supporters.Photo: Mark Wallheiser/2015 Getty Images

The media’s obsessive coverage of Donald Trump has been stalked by a cloud of self-imposed shame. The Huffington Post made an early decision to relegate Trump coverage to its entertainment section, reflecting a wide sense that Trump’s contribution to the race was diversionary. It is almost certainly true that Trump will not win the Republican nomination, and even more certainly true that he will not be elected president. But the Trump candidacy — and, in particular, its endgame — will have an enormous impact on the outcome of the presidential race. The question is not whether Trump will affect the outcome of the race, but how.

Trump could change the race by stamping his image upon the Republicans in a way they cannot escape. Trump has made himself the symbol of racism against Latinos in the United States. He is absolute brand poison. Democrats are already airing television ads connecting other Republican candidates to Trump:

Another, more potent way Trump could determine the outcome of the race is by running a third-party candidacy. An independent Trump is the perfectly designed Republican-killer. He appeals to a constituency (white nativists) that forms a crucial component of the Republican base, but which bears almost no authentic support for the party’s anti-government domestic-policy agenda. He has the celebrity and money to sustain such a run. An independent Trump run would virtually eliminate any chance of Republican victory.

Republicans’ success requires the party to steer a course between these two outcomes — one damaging, the other ruinous. They must keep Trump within the party without allowing him to contaminate the party. Such an outcome is certainly possible. It will not be easy. More unnerving for Republican power brokers is the fact that the success of their project lies mainly in Trump’s hands. And what Trump is even trying to achieve is difficult to ascertain.

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There are two broad possibilities that explain Trump’s campaign. The first is that he has no real plan. His presidential run is the extension of his broader public persona — a bid for attention and to carry out grudges. Trump is running to spite the reporters and pundits who predicted he would never actually enter the race. Or perhaps he started out trying to grab attention, and simply kept going. Or he actually wants to be president in some vague way, and believes or hopes the force of his personality will carry him through. Or he just hates Jeb Bush a lot — one “Trump associate” told the Washington Post that Trump “has two goals: One, to be elected president, and two, to have Jeb not be president” — and would drop out of the race if Scott Walker or Marco Rubio supplants Bush.

If this is the case, then sooner or later — probably later — Trump will come to grips with the reality that he cannot win the Republican nomination. The field will narrow, the voters will get more realistic, and he will have to defeat a candidate who can be relied upon to carry out the Republican policy agenda.

I’ve seen some loose speculation that Trump could win the nomination without getting a majority, but this is not how the process works. You need a majority of delegates to win the nomination. If nobody has a majority going into the convention, then some process of horse-trading will go on until a majority combination forms. (In this case, the non-Trumps would unite around somebody other than Trump.) Much more likely, as the race went on, all the serious contenders who aren’t Trump and Trump’s most successful rival would drop out, allowing the leading non-Trump to win a majority of delegates in the primaries. Either way, Trump won’t get the nomination.

What happens when the party ends? The usual ritual calls for a show of unity, as the loser sublimates his ego and endorses the winner for the sake of the party’s success. It is not easy to envision Trump doing this. Nobody likes doing it, and all politicians have egos. Trump has, to say the least, an unusually large ego. What’s more, the usual incentive that prods them into swallowing their pride — pressure to stay in the party’s good graces for the sake of their political future — has no application to Trump.

At best, it would require unusual displays of flattery for Republicans to defuse Trump’s pride. But just as Trump would be unusually reluctant to defer to the party nominee, the nominee is going to be unusually reluctant to defer to Trump, given his poisonous associations. Add it all up — an egomaniacal candidate who refuses to accept the role of a loser; a party justifiably leery of sucking up to him in a public way — and what do you get? One very strong possibility is that you get Trump declaring a third-party run. Remember, we are gaming out the scenario where Trump entered the race without much planning, more as a way to keep the media circus going from one day to the next than as a long-term strategy. And the most logical endpoint of that assumption is that he bolts the party, claiming some slight (more on this later), and keeps the circus going all through November.

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The second possibility is that Trump actually has a plan. If you analyze his behavior from the premise that he has in mind a specific destination, and not just a journey, then it is possible to make sense of it. Trump is running to the right of the rest of the Republican field on immigration, but to its left on role-of-government issues. He is not talking much about Obamacare (and he has praised single-payer insurance). He has assailed his opponents for proposing to cut social-insurance programs. (“They’re attacking Social Security — the Republicans — they’re attacking Medicare and Medicaid, but they’re not saying how to make the country rich again.”) He’s called his opponents “puppets” of the Koch brothers, and proposed to raise taxes on the rich.

If all this is indeed the result of a considered plan, then the plan is probably not to become the Republican candidate for president. The plan is probably to run an independent campaign. Trump needs to initially declare himself as a Republican, because the primaries are the source of the media attention at this stage of the race. Running as a Republican gives him access to Iowa state fairs, nationally televised debates, and other venues for attention. But Trump is, at best, going through the motions of making himself acceptable to the party regulars. At worst he is actively antagonizing them. By this line of thought, Trump’s strategy is to provoke a break that would allow him to claim he has been driven out of the GOP, or that the party is not worthy of him, setting the stage for an independent candidacy.

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In other words, both assumptions — that Trump has a plan, and that he has no plan — lead to the same outcome: Trump runs a third-party race. These are not foregone conclusions, of course. But the looming prospect of an independent Trump campaign is already serious enough to have set off frantic maneuvering. Fox News began its debate by trying to pressure Trump to rule out an independent candidacy, which he refused to do. Conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt tried to do the same. State Republican parties in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina are contemplating some form of a loyalty oath.

This is a smart play by the Republicans, and one that is entirely within their rights — parties have no obligation to open themselves to candidates who want to take them apart. But would any such pledge actually bind Trump? He made an informal pact with Fox News, but, as Gabriel Sherman reported, proceeded to violate it unprovoked. Or consider the defense Trump proffered at the debate of the way he stiffed various business partners in the past: “Let me just tell you about the lenders. First of all, these lenders aren’t babies. These are total killers. These are not the nice, sweet little people that you think, okay?” All Trump needs is some insult to his oceanic ego to declare any previous agreement null and void. And if Trump does run as an independent, that is the ball game. He wouldn’t even need to appear on the ballot everywhere. A few key states could swing the outcome. For that matter, he could swing the outcome without even making the ballot. All Trump would need to do is campaign as a write-in candidate, and if he persuades a couple percent of the voters to go along, that could make all the difference in a polarized electorate.

The scenarios described here cannot be calculated with the precision of the hard sciences; Trumpology is a field bearing more resemblance to abnormal psychology than, say, physics. Any number of things could change the equation. In deference to the chaotic possibilities, assume a Trump independent run is not probable. Maybe it’s a one-in-five chance. Or one-in-ten. Whatever probability of each party winning you drew up at the beginning of the summer, it needs to be rewritten at the end of the Summer of Trump.