In their quest to stop Donald Trump’s candidacy, the Republican establishment have played into his supporters’ narrative and handed him the moral high-ground.
Donald Trump may be a divisive figure, but he has a remarkable ability to unite Republicans against him, even when those Republicans are far from seeing eye-to-eye. On the evening of 24 April, Republican primary candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich released statements implying that they had formed a pact to try and prevent Trump from obtaining the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination outright. Kasich will refrain from campaigning in Indiana, and Cruz will refrain from campaigning in Oregon and New Mexico. The pact, which is just the latest move in a long campaign to impede Donald Trump’s progress, was slammed by the New York billionaire as “desperate”. Quite frankly, it’s hard to disagree.
Ever since Donald Trump took the lead in the polls, the Republican Party has been split into two camps: those who want Trump to win, and those who would do anything to stop him. It’s not hard to see why: according to ABC News, Trump has the second most unfavourable rating of any Republican primary candidate in modern history; he is exceeded only by David Duke, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Virtually every poll shows him losing to Hillary Clinton. Trump is widely perceived as racist, sexist and xenophobic, and has no experience of political office. He has offered little in the way of actual policy; the proposals he has offered, such as banning all Muslims from entering the country and forcing Mexico to pay for a wall on its US border, are—to put it bluntly—bonkers.
Yet all his failings do not seem to translate into losses at the primary ballot box. On the contrary, Trump has so far won 27 primaries and 40 per cent of the popular vote. His closest rival Ted Cruz is 11 primaries, 13 per cent of the vote and (most importantly) 400 delegates behind him. Moreover, whereas Cruz tends to perform best at closed caucuses such as Iowa and Wyoming, Trump tends to perform best at open primaries; this suggests that Trump has a broader base of support than Cruz. Whereas Cruz performs a lot better in some regions than others (specifically the South and the Mid-West), Trump performs consistently well across the whole country. Trump clearly has a very strong democratic mandate to be the Republican nominee.
Trump’s supporters see themselves as ordinary Americans and enemies of the Republican establishment. They believe that establishment figures disregard the will of their party members, and are colluding to unfairly deprive Trump of the nomination – a paranoid narrative perhaps, but one that doesn’t seem too far from the truth. Currently, establishment GOP figures are gearing up for the possibility of a “brokered convention”, where the failure of any candidate to win the first ballot would lead to a process known as “horse trading”; delegates are “released”, i.e. made free to vote for any candidate, before a series of potentially covert negotiations ensues. Given that a majority of Republicans support Trump getting the candidacy even without him achieving a majority of delegates, such a deal could trigger an intense backlash of party members against party leaders.
Everything that has been done to impede Trump is within the rules. Cruz and Kasich have a perfect right to play their new strategy, but it certainly doesn’t look good. They’re not playing to win; they’re playing to stop Trump by any means, which means they’re playing to defy the substantial plurality of voters who support him. Likewise, a brokered convention, whilst technically above board, would quite rightly be seen as anti-democratic. Playing by the rules is not good enough; Trump’s supporters see the rules as unfair and inherently undemocratic. Using the system to stop Trump only proves his supporters’ contention that the system is rigged against them. Trump has democracy on his side, and he knows it.
The New York billionaire is like a walking advertisement for why democracy, as Churchill famously quipped, is “the worst form of government except for all those other forms.” Trump is the classic demagogue, the loud strongman who shows up when times are hard and plays on people’s emotions and prejudices. Trump-supporting YouTuber Bill Mitchell summed it up best when he tweeted, “Donald Trump says out loud everything I’ve been yelling at my TV for the past 28 years.” Economist Bryan Caplan argues that the median American voter has an authoritarian and anti-foreign bias which is personified par excellence by Trump. For any American who hopes for a rational, measured and intelligent politics, these are dark days indeed.
So what is to be done? At the moment, the GOP faces a lose-lose situation: either Trump becomes the nominee and loses by a landslide to Hillary Clinton, or he is denied the nomination, in which case the subsequent backlash will probably cause the GOP candidate to lose anyway (especially if Trump runs as an independent). We have to ask which loss is less severe. Allowing Trump to run and lose against Hillary may be the only way to discredit his toxic politics; engineering Trump’s downfall at the national convention will only embolden his supporters, make Republican leaders look like the bad guys, and push the GOP into another four years of strife and disarray.