(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Andrew Harnik/AP, Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images, AP)
There’s no hard and fast rule in politics to help you know when you’ve crossed over from mere extremism into some dark borderland of reckless ignorance. Generally speaking, though, when you find yourself defending the wisdom of the Japanese-American internment, you probably left that boundary behind a few miles back.
That’s the intellectual wasteland Donald Trump stumbled into this week when he issued what should hereafter be known as the Marvin Gaye Manifesto — his proposal that all Muslims be banned from entering the country until we can figure out “what’s going on.” This immediately drew unusual condemnation from the new Republican speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader and the party’s national chairman, along with the local Republican chairs in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The interesting question is what happens from here, because the way I see it, the cold war between Trump and the Republican governing establishment, which everyone hoped throughout the summer and fall might just resolve itself, has now become a zero-sum contest. And Republicans find themselves faced with an existential threat that has no parallel for either party in my lifetime.
Either Trump or the Republican Party as we’ve known it can come out of this election without having been politically destroyed — but almost certainly not both.
Before we climb into the time machine and survey the scenarios here, let me say that I still tend to think Trump won’t be the Republican nominee. I realize the national and state polls say otherwise (CNN’s latest survey shows him with a commanding lead in New Hampshire), and I acknowledge that one of the dangers in columnizing — at least when you have a healthy disdain for all the blather on cable TV and social media, as I do — is that you can sometimes dismiss conventional wisdom merely because it’s conventional and not because it’s wrong.
Having said that, though, most of the prophets who keep telling us that Trump is unstoppable are those who take a pretty grim view of Republican politics generally, and who are easily persuaded that the majority of conservative voters are unthinking and bigoted. Their predictions mostly reflect their own distrust of the electorate.
In fact, at this point in the race, as Stuart Stevens, the strategist behind Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, put it when we talked this week: “You, I and Donald Trump have all gotten the same amount of votes for president.”
Trump’s support in the polls — which has generally hovered around 25 or 30 percent of the primary vote — may well be inelastic, meaning that nothing he says or does can shake it. But the window he once had in which to build on that support substantially has probably closed.
In other words, it’s not so much that Trump’s War on Islam will suddenly cause him to plummet in polls or lose any significant ground; it’s that his ratings-driven rhetoric may well have trapped him exactly where he is, with nowhere to go but down.
This means Trump’s success is entirely contingent on the rest of the field remaining chaotic and fractured, which seems unlikely to me. Already, polls show Ted Cruz rising fast in Iowa, and Marco Rubio and Chris Christie may be getting some separation in New Hampshire.
(Of course, governing Republicans could well avert the Trump catastrophe next spring only to wake up and find that Cruz — a man the Washington establishment detests even more — has triumphed in his place. It’s a watch-what-you-wish-for kind of thing.)
I still wouldn’t be shocked if the unsinkable Trump, contrary to his own declarations, ended up taking his box of hats and going home before a single primary vote is cast, if the polls weren’t going his way. In Trumpland, there’s nothing worse than being a Loser.
But what if he just refuses to go away?
Even in a losing cause, Trump might well garner enough delegates to fight on through the spring, if he feels like it, and maybe even through the convention in Cleveland. He might warm to a role as hero to the party’s disaffected, less educated, working-class voters, guaranteeing him visibility through the election, at least.
Or, as Trump himself threatened yet again this week, he might decide to run as an independent, a notion with which he’s long flirted. We’ve had some consequential independent candidacies before, of course — George Wallace, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader. But we’ve seen nothing on that score like Trump, with his outsize persona, his wealth, his genius for intuiting and manipulating emotion.
If the jug-eared, high-talking Perot could get 19 percent of the vote in 1992, before the advent of Twitter, then it’s not at all unthinkable that Trump could finish ahead of a damaged Republican nominee.
Either way, Trump’s persistence would almost certainly hand the election to Hillary Clinton (assuming she’s the other nominee) and doom the party’s Senate candidates in states like New Hampshire and Ohio, too. It would cleave the party in a way it hasn’t seen since at least 1976 — except that this time the meltdown might not be followed by a disastrous presidency to make Republicans viable again, and there would be no Ronald Reagan to reunify the party.
Things get even less predictable, though, if my skepticism is misguided (it wouldn’t be the first time), and if Trump actually does roll through Iowa and New Hampshire on his way to the Republican nomination. Then governing Republicans would have an excruciating choice to make.
Most of the Washington Republicans with whom I’ve talked say the party would adopt the same strategy as it did in 1964, when a renegade conservative senator named Barry Goldwater bested the party establishment. Republicans then effectively stepped back, said as little as possible and let Goldwater drive the party off a cliff, by which time they were already making plans to regain control four years later.
But Goldwater’s was an ideological and regional insurgency, the inevitable clash of Western libertarianism and Eastern money. Cruz is more the modern analogue to Goldwater; should he win the nomination, you can absolutely see how other elected Republicans might drain the brake fluid, hand him the keys and leave the rest to fate.
Trump’s campaign, on the other hand, isn’t about ideology so much as pure narcissism, fused with neo-nativist rhetoric and an outright contempt for public service. It’s not clear that a lot of governing Republicans could stomach that kind of nominee, and even if they could, they would effectively be allowing one man to dismantle the entire Republican establishment.
Trump’s nomination would likely lead to a convention challenge, or it could even draw an establishment Republican into the race as an independent (although the most knowledgeable Republicans I talk to say the logistical hurdles and daunting electoral math make that unlikely).
The one certainty in all this is that, absent Trump bowing out gracefully at some point, none of it ends in a Republican presidency. And for this reason, of course, Democrats are already rejoicing.
They shouldn’t, or at least not without some reservation.
That’s because Trump isn’t principally a phenomenon of Republican politics, or of some latent conservative fury. What he’s showing us — what Bernie Sanders is, in a sense, showing us too — is that party structures generally are more breachable and less necessary than they’ve ever been before.
Celebrity, money, social media, charisma, emotion and populism — all of it, or some combination of it, now gives outsiders the power to push a governing establishment to the edge of extinction.
Today it’s Trump. Tomorrow, who knows?