The hot political-science theory of presidential nominations these days is “the party decides,” which holds that presidential nominations are mostly determined by insiders who prevail upon the voters. The theory, to which I mostly subscribed, held that Trump stood little to no chance of winning the Republican nomination. Indeed, Trump offered “the perfect test case” of the thesis, as one of its co-authors put it. The logic of self-preservation dictated that Republican insiders would unite to deny Trump the nomination.
The logic undergirding this conclusion still holds perfectly true. Yet the facts may not be cooperating. No coordinated anti-Trump campaign has yet materialized. Instead, we see, through straws floating in the wind, signs of a party reconciling itself to Trump. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which once savaged him mercilessly as a mobbed-up, un-conservative demagogue, has changed its tune (“Mr. Trump is a better politician than we ever imagined, and he is becoming a better candidate.”). Right-wing commentator Erick Erickson laments that many conservatives who don’t like Trump “don’t want to burn bridges by going after him”; Rupert Murdoch has gone from calling him an embarrassment to praising Trump’s alleged crossover appeal. George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer, who lacerated Trump as toxic, now calls him the likely nominee, as does former party chairman Michael Steele. Spencer Zwick, Mitt Romney’s national finance chairman, tells the Washington Post, “[P]ower brokers and financiers are now trying to cozy up to Trump in various ways, such as reaching out through mutual friends in New York’s business community.” Here is a John Kasich supporter floating the possibility of the Ohio governor as Trump’s veep candidate. Here is a conservative talk-show host floating reports that a former Romney adviser will join Trump.
The party may actually be deciding that Trump is a man it can do business with. The Republican nomination has resembled Heath Ledger’s Joker meeting with the Gotham underworld, moving from revulsion and anger to fear and then resignation and even intrigue.
But throwing in with Donald Trump is an extremely bad idea for Republicans. He is wildly unpopular among the public at large, and his mix of racism, misogyny, and flamboyant ignorance is perfectly calibrated to motivate and hold together the Obama coalition of minorities, single women, and college-educated whites. And even if he could somehow win a general election, a Trump presidency would be a white-knuckle ride for his party. Trump’s attitudes — a reverence for wealth and strength, contempt for losers of all kinds, and cultural nostalgia — may fit broadly within the GOP. But he has displayed little understanding of conservative theory, and no record of loyalty to the party. Republicans have little reason to believe Trump would expend political capital on their priorities, and less to believe he would stick to them in the face of adversity. (One analogue here might be Arnold Schwarzenegger, a cult-of-personality celebrity politician who won the governorship of California, grew deeply unpopular, and rescued his reputation by moving sharply to the center while infuriating the right.) Allowing Trump to have its nomination would saddle Republicans with the worst nominee any party has had in decades.
What, then, could explain the GOP’s bizarre capitulation? One possible reason is undue fear of Trump’s threat to run an independent candidacy if he feels mistreated by the party (a threat Republicans would be wise to ignore). But perhaps the more important factor at work is the rise of Ted Cruz, which has coincided with a sapping of the Republican Establishment’s will to oppose Trump.
When Cruz rose into the first tier of candidates last month, my initial reaction was to place him in the center of a three-candidate race, flanked by Rubio on his left and Trump on his right. Now those ideological categories are hardly firm. In some ways, on a pure issue-by-issue stance, Trump could be seen as the leftmost candidate, and Rubio the most right-wing. But ideology was not the categorization I had mind, because ideology is not the important divide within the party right now. What separates the candidates is acceptability to the Establishment. Rubio is God’s gift to the Republican donor class, and Trump is its nightmare. I assumed Republican elites would situate Cruz between the two. Instead, though, they may see him as just as bad as Trump, or possibly even worse. You can see this in pockets of moderate Republican resistance, like David Brooks and Michael Gerson, both of whom have columns today explicitly lumping Cruz and Trump together as unacceptable nominees. Iowa’s Republican governor Terry Branstad, who is officially neutral, has vowed to defeat Cruz, not Trump. Numerous Republican insiders joined Trump’s efforts to sow doubts about Cruz’s eligibility for the presidency.
Republicans really, really loathe Cruz. And not entirely without reason. Cruz has sneakily exploited the base’s ignorance to his own political benefit, at the cost of the party’s ability to safeguard its own interests. In particular, Cruz takes advantage of Republican voters’ inability to understand why Republican control of Congress does not give the party the power to enact its agenda. Cruz demagogically blames fellow Republicans for results that are the Constitution’s fault. The fact that Cruz is smart enough to know this only makes him more irritating.
Yet the annoyingness of Cruz’s tactics has exaggerated their importance in the Republican mind. If you look at the reasons my colleague Caroline Bankoff compiles for why Republicans hate Trump (“He puts what’s good for him ahead of what’s good for the GOP; He’s a grandstander; He attacks fellow Republicans; He’s rude.”), they’re really all describing the same behavior. And that behavior is limited to a particular set of circumstances — Republicans control Congress but not the White House — that, by definition, would no longer apply if Cruz were elected president.
And Cruz, unlike Trump, is a full-fledged member of the conservative movement. You cannot have a more certain loyalist; he was literally raised from birth to enact the conservative agenda. What’s more, Cruz’s reputation for extremism is overstated. As Eliana Johnson shows in a wonderful joint profile, Cruz and Rubio are more or less the same politician. They have pursued divergent strategies with the same end goal. Rubio is building a persona optimized for a general election, while Cruz is building a persona optimized for a primary.
For that reason, Cruz would stand a somewhat weaker chance of winning than Rubio, but the difference is really marginal. Cruz would not be the Establishment’s first or second choice to run atop its ticket, but he’s far from the disaster Trump would pose. He’s substantively a garden-variety right-winger. Cruz is the candidate who can harness cultural alienation, populist distrust of elites, and anti-immigration sentiment into safe channels — safe meaning something that could result in something less than the meltdown that would be a Trump nomination. If Republicans despise Cruz so much that they allow Trump to prevail, they are making a historic mistake and choosing the devil they don’t know over the one they do.