Why the GOP Establishment Is Gambling Big That Its Trump Problem Will Take Care of Itself

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A young croupier trainee displays chips on a gaming table at the Cerus Casino Academy in Marseille
For whatever reason, Republicans can't find a way to "take down" Donald Trump. So they're hoping to get lucky in Iowa and New Hampshire. Photo: JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Six months ago, when Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the GOP nomination contest was new, it was very widely assumed the Donald would crash and burn or grow bored. But if somehow that didn’t happen, of course, then the Republican Establishment — that shadowy cabal of elected officials, donors, and opinion leaders that many pundits and most political scientists believe is in total control of the presidential nominating process — would engineer the demise of his candidacy. The presumed means for doing so varied from the sheer freezing effect of the Establishment’s disdain (picked up on by actual voters, always anxious to their superiors’ bidding, in the view of many academics) to a mammoth ad campaign pointing out the numerous things about Trump that did not comport with the ideals of a family-values, free-market, anti-government party.

As we all know now, Trump’s candidacy did not self-destruct, even though he kept saying things previously considered disqualifying. Even a political scientist would admit that GOP voters are not waiting around anxiously for hints from elected officials in order to choose a nominee pleasing to party elites. And the supposed fail-safe mechanism — tens of millions of dollars in anti-Trump ads — has yet to appear. 

Veteran conservative reporter Byron York of the Washington Examiner took a long look at the nonappearance of saturation ads blasting Trump to hell, and came up with this comprehensive set of explanations:

[B]eyond condemning Trump and fretting among themselves that he could destroy the party, top Republicans, including the donor class, have mostly chosen not to confront Trump. Why?

There are several reasons. First, creating an organization and spending millions of dollars to carpet-bomb Trump with negative ads in key states isn’t easy; there aren’t many people who could pull it off. Second, some donors think an anti-Trump offensive not only would not work but would backfire on an already unpopular GOP establishment. Third, some who do believe it could work think it should not be attempted until Trump’s critics have agreed on an alternative candidate — which they haven’t. Fourth, the anti-Trump opposition can’t decide who should lead such an effort. And fifth, most GOP strategists and money movers continue to believe Trump will ultimately fail on his own, that in the end he will not be the Republican nominee.

I’d add to this impressive list that even if someone was willing to bankroll a Rolling Thunder ad campaign against Trump, and even if Republicans could agree on the timing and the roles of various organizations, and even on an alternative candidate, there’s this little question of what message to use. The Club for Growth thought it could bring down the Donald with ads demonstrating he’s not a “true conservative.” Turns out the kind of people who might respond to that message weren’t supporting Trump in the first place, or were sufficiently excited by his nationalist themes and the horror he inspired among Democrats and RINOs that they were willing to overlook the odd heresy. If there’s some silver bullet for bringing down Trump, it’s not clear anyone has identified it.  

But the last factor York cites could be providing a convenient excuse for avoiding the hard work of going medieval on the wily tycoon: They finally see signs of vulnerability in the early states. On this front, Ted Cruz’s Iowa surge has been welcomed avidly by Establishment types who would otherwise just as soon throw the Texas senator off the nearest bridge wearing concrete cowboy boots.  

And so you begin to see the scenario the Establishment is hoping for: Cruz takes Trump down a notch in Iowa, some acceptable Establishment candidate beats both of them in New Hampshire, and then order is restored. 

At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver and his colleagues conducted a Slack chat Wednesday on this very subject, and they conclude Trump’s enemies are confident enough that he will stumble in Iowa and New Hampshire that they are willing to pause once again before panicking and going after Trump with tire irons. The one thing that’s still troublesome, however, is that the Establishment has yet to choose its own candidate to harvest the preordained victory in New Hampshire. Rubio seemed to be the Guy until recently, but now there’s fresh buzz about Christie, and no one can talk Jeb Bush out of the race so long as he’s got $50 million or so in super-pac money left to burn. If the “wrong” Establishment candidate winds up finishing well in Iowa and gets the inevitable bounce in New Hampshire, it will probably be too late for the movers and shakers to recalibrate their strategy. And it would be something of a Pyrrhic victory for the Republican Establishment to block Trump at the price of giving Ted Cruz a path to the nomination as wide and straight as the Iowa stretch of I-80, which is what he’ll have if he wins the first two states and heads into the southern primaries like the second coming of Barry Goldwater.  

All in all, the Republican Establishment’s gamble is big enough and dangerous enough that I’m sure they’d prefer that the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson — about the only people with the money and the arrogance to presume to take down Trump on their own accord — could take up the cup and deal with the demagogue before those unpredictable voters weigh in. But there’s no reason to bet the farm, or the Republican Party, on that proposition. 

GOP Gambling That Trump Will Crash Without Push