Donald J. Trump is certainly not the best Republican candidate for president (he may even be one of the worst), but under certain circumstances, he may just be the best option available for the Republican nomination.
On June 16, 2015, in the most glorious spectacle, Trump and his illustrious golden hair descended from the business heavens on a golden escalator to “take the brand of the United States and make it great again.”
Time after time, the “losers” in the Beltway — the pundits, the commentariat, the establishment — would say, he’s gone too far, he can’t possibly survive this outrageous statement or that one. The American people are too smart, too sensitive to fall for a bigoted, misogynistic demagogue.
But time after time, Donald Trump proved to be the “winner” he claims to be. His poll numbers would go up, late-night comedians and Sunday morning talk show hosts couldn’t get enough of him, the news media couldn’t resist his celebrity — and his poll numbers would continue to go up. (If he doesn’t make the United States’ brand great, at least he can make CNN’s.)
Love him or hate him, as a nation, we’ve become enamored with Trump. With the Iowa caucuses kicking off in less than two weeks, few expected this real-estate mogul to be competitive in the race this long. Now the prevailing notion is that while he may be winning, he certainly won’t be the nominee.
It’s obvious that we don’t like to think about undesirable outcomes, so we tell ourselves they can’t happen.
But what if Trump is the nominee? What would be wrong with that? Granted, there are many reasons that a hate-spewing demagogue being the standard-bearer of one of the two major political parties in the United States would be very, very bad, but it might actually be the best option available to the party come the convention.
The “establishment” hates to think about it. Ross Douthat of The New York Times refuses to believe that Trump can be their nominee, and my friend and colleague Brett Parker of the Stanford Political Journal statistically corroborated Douthat’s claim this week. But their analyses rest on the assumption that should Trump not win the nomination outright, he will definitely not be nominated in a brokered convention.
But why shouldn’t the Republican establishment nominate Donald Trump?
This summer, Trump took the GOP primary race by storm. He was a disgrace to the party. Scott Walker advised his fellow candidates to exit the race (as he did) so that the party might unite around a strong conservative alternative to Trump. But very few followed suit, and the possibility of a singular establishment candidate emerging from the bunch continues to diminish as time passes.
Now, not only has it become a competition between Trump and the establishment, but a new anti-establishment figure — Ted Cruz — has also emerged as a leading candidate.
The Republican establishment has been punched in the face by Donald Trump (and Ted Cruz). He’s embraced white-identity politics (alienating and scapegoating women and minorities), an association the party wanted to distance itself from, and he’s taken a populist approach to government rather than a traditionally conservative one. The party would like anything other than to be labeled the “party of Trump.”
But if we assume the polls are an accurate indicator of public support (which they may not necessarily be), Republican disenchantment is at a high, and a brokered convention certainly seems a possibility. It is a very plausible scenario that Trump, Cruz and an establishment alternative (Bush, Rubio, Kasich or Christie) may lead the party in July with the three highest delegate shares (with none having enough delegates to secure the nomination outright). In that case, I believe the party should nominate Trump. (I believe they definitely should not and will not nominate Cruz if given the choice.)
But why should the Republican establishment not save face and select an “establishment” candidate if given the opportunity in a brokered convention? Because if the party nominates an establishment alternative, they run the unlikely risk of Donald Trump mounting an independent campaign, but even more so, they run the very real risk of losing to Hillary Clinton and validating the frustrations and the anger of the disenchanted Republicans who are desperate for a party shake-up.
On the other hand, if the party nominates Donald Trump, they will likely be able to consolidate the support of the radical, anti-establishment wing (supporters of Trump and Cruz) with that of the loyal Republicans who would much rather see a Trump presidency than another Clinton one.
For some, party loyalty will have its limits, but believe me, as it becomes more widely accepted as a possibility, we’re sure to see more and more Republicans (especially the donor class) reconciling themselves to the idea of Trump as their nominee, because a Trump nomination really leaves only two possibilities: he wins or he loses.
Speaker Paul Ryan will control the direction of the Republican Party no matter what happens in 2016. Should Hillary Clinton defeat Donald Trump in the general election, Ryan will get to choose whether to continue the unflinchingly oppositional and uncompromising approach the House has taken toward Barack Obama’s presidency, or (what I tend to believe is more likely) to provide a moderate, conservative reform agenda through compromise. With the latter approach, Ryan will essentially be afforded the opportunity to turn to the anti-establishment wing of his party and say, “Well, you had your chance, and you lost.”
On the other hand, should Trump win (which would be terrifying), Ryan will at least get to choose whether to allow the most radical extremes in his party to fulfill Trump’s every desire, or (what I tend to believe is more likely) to propose a Republican agenda that, while conservative, would be far less extreme than Trump’s outlandish propositions. Sure The Donald’s mouth might not be controllable, but what lands on his desk would be, and President Trump wouldn’t veto Republican legislation. (The tyranny of Trump would effectively be limited to his executive power, which is less dangerous than most people imagine.)
Anything could happen between now and July, but if no candidate wins the nomination outright, Trump maintains a sizable share of support, and if the GOP race comes down to a brokered convention, rather than nominating an establishment candidate, the Republican Party should nominate Donald J. Trump. At least that way, they can either join him in his “winning,” or they can force him and the ideas he espouses out of the party as “losers.”
Contact Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna at ruairi ‘at’ stanford.edu.