"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win," goes the old saying. In the case of Donald Trump’s candidacy, step one, ignoring, never happened. And it’s looking like step three, fighting, has barely taken place. Trump may skip straight from the being-laughed-at stage to winning. The Republican Establishment took far too long to stop Trump, and its efforts now look like a catastrophe.
The Republican Party has faced a collective-action problem: A consolidation of the Establishment candidates is in all of their interests, but it is in the interest of every individual candidate (and their supporters) to stay in the race. A famous essay called “The Tragedy of the Commons” once explored the nature of a collective-action problem, using the metaphor of a common meadow where farmers bring their cattle to graze, each one letting its cows eat more until all of the grass had disappeared. Republicans by their nature have difficulty grasping collective-action problems, which form the philosophical basis for much government action. If they fail, it will be because they placed too much faith in the invisible hand to sort it out.
The party’s first problem was that it had too many candidates who could plausibly carry the banner of the party agenda. Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal — these figures would all rank as first-tier prospects ordinarily. Even after they fell by the wayside, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie have all remained. The party elites shuffled in the direction of Rubio, but Rubio has faced the deep and possibly crippling liability of having sponsored immigration reform.
Before Tuesday, Rubio seemed poised to put the scandal of his past efforts to solve a real-world problem behind him. The party apparatus was coming around. Rubio had largely set aside his vacuous futurism and harkened back to his tea-party roots. As the candidate of retrograde apocalypticism, Rubio struck a connection with authentic conservatism. “We are the only campaign who is exposing President Obama for his deliberate actions to destroy our country,” boasted a Rubio campaign message. Rush Limbaugh, who has spent seven years insisting that President Obama had not blundered but was intentionally destroying the country they (but not he) loved out of deep anti-American animus, exulted that only Rubio and Ted Cruz were grasping his point. (“He thinks this country has been unjust and immoral from its founding, and it's his job to change it and turn it around. And that's what he's doing. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are the only two guys saying it.”) Rubio’s promise on the stump that he alone could “unite the conservative movement” seemed plausible (and also evidence of the deep-rooted pathology in the conservative psyche).
A measure of Rubio’s protected status lay in his ability to set low targets for himself and have them embraced as reasonable. Rubio plotted a “3-2-1” path — third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, first in South Carolina. By last week, second place seemed well in hand, and giddy Republicans whispered that he might even take first. Then came probably the most humiliating debate performance in the history of American presidential politics. And then Rubio finished fifth in New Hampshire.
Rubio’s dilemma is that his incipient front-runner status depended on the Establishment surrounding him in its warm embrace. Opposing candidates and their donors were getting warnings to stop damaging the likely nominee. His spokespeople are still using this warning against his fellow Establishment candidates — Rubio spokesperson Alex Conant warned that the longer Jeb Bush stays in the race, the more likely Trump is to win.
But Bush could now just as easily say the same about Rubio. Bush finished ahead of Rubio in New Hampshire and has plenty of money and a large ground operation. Bush has no reason to leave the race.
Before New Hampshire, National Review's Tim Alberta reported that, if Bush finished ahead of Rubio, it might "prove crippling" to the younger Floridian. That proved prophetic. After Rubio’s debate choke, Bush can claim vindication that Rubio is not up to the challenge of a presidential campaign, let alone the presidency. Yet Bush is nowhere close to consolidating Establishment support. He carries the fatal burden of a last name that is a general-election branding disaster, while also being a massive liability within his own party (a shockingly high percentage of Republican voters disapprove of Bush — perhaps as a reaction against his brother, and perhaps as an expression of contempt for his status as a regular victim of Trump bullying). John Kasich has neither the money, the organization, nor the message to plausibly unite his party.
That leaves Bush and Rubio in a death struggle to be the sole alternative acceptable to a party Establishment that loathes both Trump and the candidate who has given Trump his strongest competition, Ted Cruz. The Texas senator may have finished third, but he enjoyed a strategic victory greater than his outright win in Iowa. Cruz saw the crippling of the strongest competition for a candidate of the conservative movement, Rubio. If he finds himself ultimately matched up against either Bush or Trump, Cruz will enjoy something close to unified conservative-movement support.
Trump has performed better than any of his critics (myself included) imagined possible when he first seized control of the race last summer. If he has a ceiling, it’s no lower than that of any of his competitors. His internal opposition has declined. He has gotten better at politics. But he has also benefited from a hapless Republican Establishment that now faces the prospect of a takeover by an outsider it cannot control, and that richly deserves its predicament.