Donald Trump’s campaign is now a five-alarm dumpster fire. Over the past few weeks, the GOP nominee has proven himself to be as incompetent as he is racist, reviving interest in a Cleveland coup. But is deposing an authoritarian demagogue — who has no idea how to run a modern presidential campaign — worth alienating his legions of voters? Jonathan Chait and Ed Kilgore debate whether dumping Trump is the best of the Republican Party’s bad options.
Jonathan Chait: As Donald Trump’s campaign has gotten off to a predictably horrible start, reports are circulating once again that various Republican insiders are plotting to steal the nomination from him, probably by using the Rules Committee to unbind all of the delegates and let them vote for a nominee who isn’t transparently insane and racist. Putting aside for a moment the question of whether this will happen, let’s discuss whether Republicans would be wise to do so. I say yes, but I’ll let you first explain your reasons for why you believe they shouldn’t.
Ed Kilgore: The Trump phenomenon was created in no small part by a perception among GOP voters that party elites could not be trusted to reflect the views of the base or to keep their promises. Stealing the nomination from a candidate who has a majority of first-ballot bound delegates and who won all of the late primaries would tear the party apart. There really might be riots in Cleveland. Better for the GOP to grin and bear it and hope either (1) Trump rebounds to a respectable loss, if not an upset win, and (2) it’s one of those presidential years (like 1972 and 1984) where the top race is so lopsided that it has little effect down ballot. Plus, the party would be in good shape for a 2018 and 2020 rebound, having blamed Trump for its troubles.
Chait: Let’s pull these apart, maybe. I think the Trump phenomenon was mainly created by a candidate who catered to racial resentment and reaction against social change in a far more direct way than did any other candidate. I think that’s the heart of his candidacy, an indelible brand that endears him to most Republicans, but also makes him radioactive to a majority of the general electorate.
Kilgore: That’s an exaggerated version of the Republican dilemma since 1980, if not 1964. There’s always tension between what partisans want and what the general electorate wants. Two weeks ago, Democrats were panicking over Trump’s poll numbers. It’s too early for GOP elites to write him off entirely, and “the base” just isn’t following polling averages.
Chait: Sure, there’s always tension between what the base wants and what voters want, but Trump is a complete historical outlier in this regard. He’s the most unpopular major-party nominee in the history of polling, by a wide margin. He hasn’t led a single poll in weeks, even though his opponent has failed to consolidate a big chunk of very winnable Bernie Sanders voters. So I think, from the standpoint of 2016, Trump is just an extraordinarily bad nominee.
I would further argue that he threatens to saddle Republicans with long-term brand damage. They’d be better off losing with a different candidate than letting a cohort of younger or newer voters — especially from immigrant communities — think of the GOP as the Trump Party.
Kilgore: Maybe it’s because of all those “Hillary for Prison” buttons I saw at Republican events in Iowa, but I think a lot of GOP activists believe HRC is going to be indicted, changing everything.
Chait: They might think that, but they’re wrong. Probably.
Kilgore: Perhaps we should clarify who we mean by “the party.” For Trump to be denied the nomination, party elites are going to have to wrench it away by unprecedented force. I don’t think there’s any set of facts or power on Earth that can convince the rank and file that the cause is hopeless. And even for elites, you can make a good counterargument that letting “the fever” (as Obama refers to conservative lunacy in the GOP) run its course is the better path to restoring “the brand.”
Chait: I agree that the rank and file would be extremely angry and might burn Cleveland to the ground. I utterly deny that any origin-state rivalry is behind my willingness to encourage the sacking of Ohio’s largest city.
Kilgore: Just recall that some barbarian armies were easily distracted from their original goals and sacked nearby cities (e.g., Ann Arbor).
Chait: They wouldn’t set foot there. Too much liberal wickedness. But my premise is that nominating Trump means (1) a near-certain loss in November; (2) significant down-ballot problems, putting the Senate at dire risk and even exposing the House; and (3) the aforementioned Party of Trump branding crisis. I conclude that no outcome could be as bad as the combination of the above.
Kilgore: Seriously, 2018 is set up as an epic Republican comeback year if HRC wins. The Senate landscape is already massively pro-Republican. It would be a third-term midterm for the party controlling the White House — sure death. And then 2020 would be the long-awaited Reconquista of the White House in a possible landslide that would also guarantee GOP control of the next round of redistricting. That’s a lot of buried treasure for losing one election.
Chait: Agreed. But that can happen after Trump loses, or after Scott Walker runs on a stolen nomination and (probably) loses.
Kilgore: Yeah, but if you are aiming at a defeat, Trump will be hard to beat. Are we going to talk about the feasibility of dumping Trump?
Chait: I’m sure we agree that Republicans are almost certainly too gutless and pathetic to do it.
Kilgore: Well, aside from that, it would take a small miracle. Roughly one-third of all delegates are bound by state election laws (yeah, David French thinks that doesn’t matter, but who cares what he thinks?). You’d have to guess a third of Trump delegates are bound to him personally as True Believers in his Politics of White Resentment. That gets you close to a majority, and then there are the ‘fraidy cats and the people who agree with me that just getting through this makes more sense — and there’s just no way this happens.
Chait: Let me interrogate this premise that the best way out of the Trumpian swamp is straight through it. From what I’ve seen, conservatives who hate Trump feel just the opposite. They think Trump isn’t being purged from the system, he’s gaining a foothold. You win by winning, and you lose by losing. Certainly Goldwater’s landslide defeat did not get arch-conservatism out of the Republican system. It gave the activists a taste for more of it, gave them experience running the party and a permanent foothold.
Kilgore: Conservatives who hate Trump also know they cannot stop him. But, at any rate, the Goldwater "hidden victory" of conservatives is a bit oversold. The short-term effect was a comeback for party moderates; conservatives largely hated Nixon, certainly by 1972; and they didn’t launch a serious assault on the Establishment barricades until 12 years after Barry.
Chait: Right, but it was widely seen as a key moment that enabled the later triumphs. Do you disagree?
Kilgore: No, though it was a long, strange trip.