From the makers of such classic slogans as “Repeal and Replace” and “We Built It” comes the latest exciting trend in conservative hash-tavism—Never Trump! The Never Trump movement is a last-ditch attempt by high profile mainstream conservatives to deny Donald Trump the GOP nomination this July. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse kicked off the effort a week ago in a Facebook post wherein he proclaimed that he would support a third party if Trump were the Republican nominee. Then, building from their “Conservatives Against Trump” cover, members of the National Review finished their thought and vowed never to support Trump under any circumstances. Days later, members of the self-described “Republican foreign policy community” announced in an open letter that “as committed and loyal Republicans, we are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head.” Then, in back-to-back address this past week in the most prominent endorsement of the movement, former GOP nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain viciously rebuked Trump and urged the Republican Party to stop him at all costs.
As the New York Times editorial board and others have noted, this desperate howl from the Republican Party is deeply hypocritical. Republicans created this Frankenstein monster by turning liberalism into a force of evil rather than merely a differing political ideology, and then assiduously fed and nurtured the beast by painting Obama as anti-American. After the Tea Party emerged with its racial overtones and venomous hatred of compromise with the President, congressional Republicans harnessed its energy rather than repudiating its viciousness. At the same, the Never Trump movement is also undermined by the divisions between its absolutist opposition to Trump and the position of many of its sympathizers. McCain, for instance, admitted that he would support Trump should he win the nomination, even while labeling Trump’s foreign policy views as “dangerous.” Romney muddied the message of his speech by simultaneously labeling Trump a “fraud,” while lamenting that he would lose to Hillary Clinton.
So, yes, the Never Trumpers are arguably as confused and incoherent as the Trump supporters they bemoan. Even if the Never Trump movement is a logical reaction to Trump’s appalling campaign, to be effective its leaders must clearly identify exactly what the goal of Republicans rightfully terrified about Trump’s takeover of their party should be. Because Romney’s apparent suggestion that Never Trumpers should seek to both block Trump through a contested convention and win the November election is the stuff of fantasy.
In an immediate sense, Never Trump Republicans are making the logical play by publicly declaring that they will not rally behind Trump as a nominee. First, sounding this alarm in the most extreme manner possible serves as a warning to the go-with-the-flow, Chris Christie-type Republicans that acquiescing to Trumpism will not be the easy decision. Optimistically, this tactic could slow the Trump tide and allow another candidate to emerge with a majority of delegates. Second, as has been obvious for a long time, Trump is not a conservative and has not campaigned on conservative ideals. For many, then, standing against Trump is an opportunistic long play for future branding when Trump’s brand of politics turns sour, as it inevitably must. Third, Trump’s rhetoric and rallies have become truly frightening, and any self-respecting politician (or person) should be interested in distancing themselves from him as a matter of integrity and self-preservation.
What to do next, however, is not as self-evident as Romney described. If “Never Trump” is truly only about stopping Trump because he’s unelectable and a threat to conservative ideology, then that’s relatively straightforward. There are enough Republicans and a grab bag of tactics for sinking Trump should he become the nominee—staying home, supporting Hillary Clinton, or backing a third party, to name a few. Presumably, however, the party seeks more than just preventing a Trump presidency. Perhaps GOP officials should seek to nominate a mainstream alternative to regain its chances of success in the general election. Another option is to position the party in the best possible way to rise from Trump’s ashes.
Romney, for one, is advocating the former. Looking at the daunting delegate math, Romney implicitly stumped for a coordinated strategy to deny Trump a majority of delegates and then defeat him at a contested convention. “Given the current delegate selection process,” Romney advised in his speech last week, “I would vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state.” This is a stunning admission by the last Republican nominee. Rather than argue for consolidation so that the party can unite behind the strongest challenger, Romney is explicitly advocating that the party coordinate to wrest the nomination from Trump after he wins a strong plurality of delegates.
If Romney believes that this strategy is the best way to win in November, he is sorely mistaken. A world in which Trump wins 40% of the Republican delegates is not a world in which the party will unify behind a nomination-stealing alternative on a hot July night. Already, the backlash among the rank and file has been harsh, and most Republican grandees likely understand that this strategy is untenable. There is a fundamental Catch-22 in the Romney approach. You can almost imagine the following dialogue between Romney and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus as though it were right out of the Joseph Heller novel:
“You’re wasting your time,” Preibus was forced to tell him.
“Can’t you block someone from the nomination who’s crazy?”
“Oh, sure. I have to. There’s a rule saying I have to block anyone who’s so crazy they can’t win the election.”
“Then why don’t you block him? Trump’s too crazy to get elected. Ask McConnell.”
“McConnell? Where is McConnell? You find McConnell and I’ll ask him.”
“Then ask any of the others. They’ll tell you how crazy he is.”
“Of course he’s unelectable,” Preibus replied. “I just told you he’s crazy unelectable, didn’t I?”
“Can you block him, then?”
“I sure can. But first the convention has to ask me to overturn the plurality will of the delegates and nominate someone else. That’s part of the rule.”
“Then why don’t they ask you to?”
“Because they’re crazy. Any convention that wants to overturn the will of its own voters is crazy. Sure, I can block Trump. But first the convention has to ask me.”
“That’s all they have to do to block Trump?”
“That’s all. Let them ask me.”
“And then you can block him?” Romney hopefully asked.
“No. Then I can’t block him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Preibus replied. “Catch-22. Any candidate who wants to deny the nomination to a crazy and unelectable candidate chosen by the party’s voters is crazy and unelectable. You can’t ignore the will of your own voters and win in November.”
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Romney observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Preibus agreed.
If the goal is to win in November, the Never Trump movement should not seek to divide the states and conquer the current frontrunner at the convention, and as long as the field remains divided between four candidates, no one other than Trump will be able to win a majority (or even a plurality) of delegates prior to that event. So why, then, have the Never Trumpers failed to come to their senses and rally around one candidate? As laid out here last week, the accelerated primary schedule gave Republicans a matter of weeks during a March Madness of their own creation in which to defeat Trump. That turnaround could only happen, however, if the race fundamentally changed and the number of candidates winnowed to two. For all of Trump’s early success, he remains extremely unpopular among Republican voters. In a recent CNN national poll that gave Trump a remarkable 49% share of the vote (far higher than most other polls), 35% of Republican voters nonetheless said they would not support Trump even if he was the GOP nominee. His unfavorable numbers among Republican primary voters have long approached 50%. A one-on-one contest at the outset of March seems like a strong play to take down Trump.
Today, after eleven Super Tuesday states and four more on March 5th, the delegate math is, if anything, slightly more heartening for Trump haters. True, he is still far ahead. Yet, Trump remains under 50% of the 1,237 delegates needed for nomination. More importantly, Cruz gained substantially more delegates than Rubio, preventing the nightmare scenario where the two candidates evenly split delegates and thereby diminish them both. The problem, of course, is that Cruz and not Rubio was the candidate who emerged as the clear second-place delegate accumulator. Cruz has thus far won March contests in Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska, Kansas, and Maine. Texas, in particular, gave Cruz a huge delegate cache. Rubio’s performance on March 5th was particularly dismal and suggests that he is losing steam, not gaining it. As the delegate count stands today, Trump is at a solid but beatable 391, with Cruz far ahead of Rubio 304 to 154. As Jonathan Chait recently commented, the prospect of nominating Rubio on the first ballot is “a hopeless task.” To effectuate the two-person tango strategy, then, Cruz is the one. And this is precisely why Republicans have not rallied around a single challenger.
Pretend for a moment you are a national, mainstream Republican who opposes Trump. You would likely find a Trump nomination offensive for three principal reasons: 1) Trump is an extreme candidate whose policy positions make him utterly unelectable in November and harmful to the party’s long-term interests; 2) Trump is a wild-card who has clearly demonstrated he would act in his own interests at the direct expense of the Republican Party and the reelection of its officials; and 3) Trump is vulgar and unstable, and a true threat to both human decency and the basic functioning of government. Ted Cruz is vulnerable to the same critique on two out of three! Cruz would not be a threat to start a nuclear war with China and does not engage in flirtations with economic populism and social liberalism, but he is unelectable as a general election candidate and equally disloyal to his party to further his own stature. Cruz may not represent an existential threat to the Republican Party, but he is certainly not palatable enough to elite Republicans to rally around. A Cruz nomination simply engineers a different type of takeover then the one led by Trump and also does nothing to quell the clear populist, anti-establishment uproar so central to the Trump campaign. Trump voters will not be mollified by a Cruz candidacy.
All of which is why the Never Trump movement must really be about something entirely different from saving the party’s 2016 prospects from utter disaster, whether its members realize it or not. Nominating and supporting Trump would lead to electoral disaster for the GOP and career suicide for its elected officials. On the other hand, rallying behind Ted Cruz would lead to electoral disaster and an endorsement of the fringe right-wing religious and Tea Party conservative movements as the future of the party. Yes, the third option is also unpalatable. As discussed above, splintering the vote and handing the nomination to an undeserving Rubio or Kasich (or more implausibly, Romney or Paul Ryan), guarantees a revolt from Trump’s brood and, yes, electoral disaster (noticing a pattern?). But if the Never Trump movement is more concerned with protecting the Republican Party than winning the 2016 election, then that option makes perfect sense. Denying Trump the nomination at the convention may not solve their problem known as Hillary Clinton, but it would lead to a temporary reprieve from Trump’s attempted hostile takeover without surrendering to Cruz’s extremism.
Although delivering the nomination to a mainstream conservative does nothing to avoid the GOP’s reckoning day, postponing that moment has a key benefit. It prevents the Republican brand from being utterly trashed by embracing a rump constituency (of approximately 35%) that advocates views utterly poisonous to the vast majority of Americans. Nominating a mainstream conservative allows the party to continue representing the same coalition it always has. It means saving the Congress and maintaining their leverage over potential Supreme Court appointees. And it means allowing time for the party to seriously consider how to win back Trump’s voters without embracing his campaign’s most horrific elements. Regardless of their strategy in the next eight months, the Republican Party will have to make serious changes. But for now, Trump must be dealt with. The party still has time to do so, without embracing Cruz, so long as it accepts the immediate electoral pain and fury. As with any solution that seems too easy, there’s always a catch.