A major party presidential nomination is a terrible thing to waste. For the candidate, after an arduous year spent trudging through Iowa and New Hampshire, winning the nomination offers the opportunity to command the attention not just of a pancake breakfast in Davenport but of an entire nation. For the party, its presidential nomination is the one great prize it has to offer ambitious members to exact promises to support its collective interests and goals. The nomination is the steering wheel of the party apparatus, to be handed (ideally) to a sober-minded leader not only to guide the ship in the right direction but also to avoid a terrible crash that could obliterate its supporting parts. Even a losing major party standard-bearer holds considerable power both before and after the election. The nominee will forever gain a new national stature and holds the potential to sweep into office a new generation of party leaders on his coattails, or devastate the party’s ranks for years to come.
All of this is why the last two months of the Donald Trump campaign have been such a curious disaster. After his final Republican opponents withdrew from the race following the Indiana Primary on May 4th, Trump has been casually indifferent to even the most basic tasks of building a national campaign. At the same time, one month to go before this season’s very early party conventions, the GOP’s congressional leaders have been all too willing to forgo the presidency until 2020. Even as they acquiesced to Trump’s rise with their conspicuous silence, prominent GOP officials have made it fairly clear that they consider the presidency a lost cause and not a prize worth fighting for given their 2016 ringleader. While speculation runs wild about Trump’s motives and ideas, the larger story concerns the willingness of mainstream Republican leaders to forfeit the presidency.
As is seemingly always the case in this election, though, let’s start with Trump. Rhetorically, Trump has put together at least a semblance of a coherent ideological framework. His “America First” foreign policy is one of disengagement from the world and placing the United States’ short term financial interests ahead of its long-term geopolitical ones. His consistent policy ideas center on traditional far-right themes of nationalistic pride and victimhood and attack the convenient boogeymen of immigrants, foreigners, and elites. Trump’s Muslim ban and promises to build a border wall and tear up international trade deals would fit comfortably within the xenophobic diatribes of Nigel Farage or Marine La Pen. Tactically, however, Trump has always been a complete enigma. He is horribly understaffed. He is disastrously unconstrained by his staff. His organization is rife with quite possibly the worst staff. From the gestapo tactics of the just-deposed Corey Lewandowski to the smug indifference of the dictators’ breakfast club leader Paul Manafort to the bombastic and contradictory press releases of Hope Hicks all the way to the crazy-eyed ravings of Stockholm-Syndrome-sufferer Katrina Pierson, Trump’s is truly the most self-destructive of all campaigns. For God’s sake, Dick Morris is now informally advising the campaign!
News last week that Trump had raised less money than a long-shot Senate bid from the Mountain West only underscored his seemingly complete indifference to his fate come November. Or at least it would have if the point hadn’t been highlighted and underlined several times in the last few days alone. Since then, Trump has taken time off from campaigning to promote a golf course in Scotland, told leaders in his own party to “just be quiet” and let him handle the election himself, and eschewed employing basic campaign strategies such as data-mining, micro-targeting, and rapid-response campaign communications infrastructure. It’s truly a nihilistic operation, built on the unifying principle that actions have no consequences. It’s one thing to inspire comparisons to the Nazis; it’s entirely another to have no (campaigning) beliefs at all. Or as Walter Sobchak said about such an ideology in The Big Lebowski, in a statement seemingly tailor-made for The Donald (and in indeed addressed in part to a man of the very same name): “Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, but at least it’s an ethos.”
There are at least four theories offered to explain what it is Trump is actually up to, none of which are fully satisfactory. The first, that Trump is actually a brilliantly disguised Hillary Clinton mole designed to throw the election to the Democrats, is as preposterous as it is titillating. The second, that Trump is actually aware of his inadequacy for the presidency and ran solely to benefit his brand and bottom-line feels plausible but ignores his lifetime of egomania and presidential flirtations. The third, that Trump is deeply lazy and unserious, has strong elements of veracity but oversimplifies the often insatiable way Trump follows the news, offers media access, and tweaks his message based on his call and response with supporters. And the fourth, that Trump is deeply arrogant and listens only to reinforcing sycophants has the benefit of being true, but fails to account for the fact that his last two months (at least) of campaigning have failed in utterly predictable ways. Surely Trump can see that he has not led in a national poll for more than a month. Perhaps reality lies somewhere in between, with Trump superficially confident he could handle the presidency but ultimately uninterested in testing the question. Win or lose, the campaign ends in November, so why not have the real fun his way, especially when it has seemed to work up to this point?
Whatever Trump is up to, the incentives at stake and the rationale behind the national Republican Party’s actions this past year are as clear as they are troubling for those interested in the party’s future (not to mention those who care about a healthy American democracy supported by two functioning political parties). Since Trump secured the delegates necessary to be nominated in Cleveland in July, leading GOP actors have taken truly unprecedented steps to distance themselves from their presumptive nominee’s candidacy. Republican leaders have strongly criticized their own nominee’s rhetoric. The Speaker of the House has called some of his nominee’s statements the “textbook definition of racism” and has developed his own policy agenda wholly apart from that of the purported leader of his party. Former opponents in the presidential primary are refusing giving their endorsements to Trump, as are two former GOP presidents, the 2012 Republican nominee, a slew of former GOP presidential advisors and cabinet members, and a prominent U.S. Senator. Party leaders are refusing speaking slots at the national convention, and indeed are staying away from Cleveland entirely in record-shattering numbers. Even supporters have couched their backing in muted terms, while staying silent after vicious attacks on the presumptive nominee from Clinton, Obama, and other top Democrats. Meanwhile, Trump’s Vice Presidential “shortlist” is indeed so short because “the presumptive nominee’s own toxicity is making the job” hard to fill. Or as John Kasich campaign manager John Weaver put it to Politico: “I can’t imagine a truly credible person agreeing to be his running mate, because it would be the end of his or her political career.”
Nor are Republican donors or campaign committees rushing in to fill Trump’s money void. Major Republican donors have made clear they intend to focus on state and local races with an eye toward keeping the House of Representatives in Republican hands. Even major SuperPac funders, with the notable exception of Sheldon Adelson, are refusing to come to Trump’s aid. The most important prize in American politics is apparently not worth fighting for anymore.
The Republican abandonment of Trump would make more sense if it were not coupled with two other truths of the primary season. First, major Republicans did nothing to condemn Trump’s rhetoric or thwart his rise during the first seven months of the campaign and then were divided and lackluster in organizing a movement against him when there was little time to spare. Second, once Trump effectively won the nomination, Republicans immediately acquiesced and offered their grudging support. It would be one thing if Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Paul Ryan, and the Koch brothers had fought tooth and nail from the very beginning against Trump and then refused to recognize his party legitimacy even upon defeat. In those circumstances, sacrificing the presidency would be a melancholy but necessary remedy to the existential threat Trump posed to the party’s future.
Instead, however, Republicans resisted challenging Trump’s takeover of their party and then meekly handed their most important possession to him without complaint. They did this knowing full-well how dangerous it would be for them to nominate Trump. His brand of politics is toxic to swing voters. His racial appeals regurgitate the heavy medicine the Republican National Committee prescribed in the wake of the 2012 election by further alienating Latinos and young voters. Most destructively to the party itself, Trump had no loyalty to the party’s leaders, agenda, or electoral success outside of himself. For Republicans to do all this and then quietly walk away to let Trump live and inevitably die on his own makes it only even more starkly clear how damaged the party is. The beliefs of the bulk of GOP voters are now so warped and radicalized that party leaders cannot—indeed are incapable of—presenting a workable governing agenda for the country. If one thought Romney’s disastrous rightward turn in the 2012 primaries was a mere tactical error, let 2016 serve to dispel that idea. Romney’s primary campaign, replete with discriminatory calls for self-deportation, deceitful claims of “apology tours,” and, yes, even a grinning endorsement from Donald Trump himself, was in fact a necessary delusion to bring the base along. It’s why supposed “establishment” conservatives like McConnell, McCain, and Orin Hatch got in bed with the crazies when their primaries came around. To oppose Trump would be akin to admitting that voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act fifty times while Obama was still in office was an ineffective strategy. Or it would be like refusing to shut down the government on some quixotic quest to defund the latest entrenched government program Republicans despise but don’t have the votes to eliminate. And we saw how well that stand served John Boehner.
Thus, the Republican Trump strategy is a conscious admission that the party has forfeited the presidency indefinitely. To oppose him would mean a Republican politician’s condemnation by talk radio and an eventual primary loss. But to fully support him would mean sacrificing scores of congressional seats come the general election. Thus, Republicans are now the midterm party. They can win by opposing an agenda; there will always be enough persuadable voters to vote against a sitting Democratic administration’s policies given the historic reactive trend against incumbent parties in off-years. But actually set forth a broadly acceptable governing framework capable of winning a national election? The GOP’s voters won’t hear of it. And so the party won’t even bother to try.