Explaining Trump's Hostile Takeover

The outcome of the Republican nomination process is a disaster for the party. The person chosen clearly is unqualified to be President, and many of his views are not those that have dominated the party over the last generation. He is not a man who respects the Constitution and the limits it imposes on political power. He is against, not big government, but stupid government. And Donald Trump really thinks he is the remedy for stupidity we need.

A neglected minority faction in the party—basically Reagan Democrats—has emerged triumphant, and its legitimate concerns, sadly, are now misrepresented by a buffoon. Toward the end of the process, Trump became the candidate of the majority of the voters in large part because they weren’t offered a more attractive alternative.

Trump goes from, say, 38 percent to 50-plus because, whatever his many shortcomings, he was perceived as better than and more moderate than Ted Cruz. More moderate? Well, the median Republican voter this year is conservative in the precise sense. He or she wants to keep what he or she has, anxious in a world where the middle class, as Charles Murray and Tyler Cowen report, is hollowing out.

Not only that, the safety nets on which Americans have come to rely all seem to be withering away—unions, pensions, tenure, employee and employer loyalty, and even government entitlements. Trump’s perceived moderation was his promise that his good deals would indefinitely underwrite what they now enjoy. It was a demagogic promise, but it represents the policy outcome the majority of voters, even Republican voters, preferred. The perception of moderation is in staking out a position somewhere between Cruz (or pure classical liberalism) and the socialist on the other side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders.

Cruz came across as an extremist on the taxation, regulation, and entitlement fronts. He seemed to be for a rollback of much of the welfare state, the complete removal of government from health care (including abolition of the tax break for employers who provide it), and a tax reform that would be aimed at growth at the expense of the middle class. The argument that cutting taxes and pruning back regulations would incentivize disruptive innovators and job-creators in ways that would benefit us all—if, inevitably, some more than others—has considerable merit. Still, there are reasons why voters today might not be buying that those reforms—by themselves—would cure what ails many of the struggling Reagan Democrats. The revival of Reaganism (or Jack Kempism) won’t work today, in part, because circumstances have just changed, and reforms that once seemed populist now seem much more oligarchic.

The main way that Cruz’s determination to be the most conservative candidate in the pack on every issue was countered by Trumpian moderation: the junior senator from Texas consistently overplayed the religion and morality card in the mode of evangelical identity politics. Most Republican voters aren’t that fixated on getting Obergefell reversed, much less in engaging in civil disobedience in response to the opinion’s activist holding. And his political ad on little girls and bathrooms, although it reflected a legitimate concern, didn’t resonate as a central issue of a presidential campaign.

Trump, by contrast, was recently praised in the New York Times for being the most gay-friendly Republican presidential candidate ever, and he’s all for each and every American using the bathroom of his or her choice. Whether Trump is right or even made sense here is not my point, and surely there’s a bit of irony in the populist candidate affirming corporate political correctness. My point is that it took him little effort to be credited with occupying moderate ground. It was amazing how easily he was allowed to get away with that.

Cruz, it turned out, was making even some of “his people” uncomfortable. There are social conservatives who thought he was discrediting their cause by overhyping it. An admittedly anecdotal example I can give is a leading member of the Catholic pro-life movement commenting bitterly within my hearing about how much she despised Ted Cruz. Why? The way he humiliated John Boehner, one of the most reliable supporters of that movement ever to serve in Congress. She doesn’t, to be sure, consider Cruz to be Lucifer in the flesh—she voted for him in her state’s primary. But still.

What about Governor Kasich? He never picked up the gravitas of a real candidate, and he was diminished into oblivion by the ridiculous deal he made (and immediately broke) with Cruz. For most Republicans, “Never Trump” was not an attractive enough brand. Presidential elections are, after all, focused on the positive qualities of leaders. Primary voters might well have been reasonably suspicious of the claim that Trump is so evil that anyone at all would be better.

For if that were true, why didn’t the great majority of elected Republican officials settle on Cruz as the only viable “anyone at all”? It’s true that Indiana’s Governor Pence endorsed Cruz, but only after praising Trump. (And he followed Trump’s clinching victory in his state with an endorsement of Trump.) Previously, when Marco Rubio seemed like he had a shot as the alternative to Trump, he was flooded with unreserved endorsements in the relevant states. (Remember South Carolina!) In contrast, “Never Cruz” ended up being almost as strong a brand as “Never Trump” among the so-called Republican Establishment.

Cruz, polls show, was actually admired by a majority of Republican voters as a man of conservative principle—an outsider with guts. That doesn’t mean a majority thought he should actually be President. But once he became “Never Trump,” he tried hard to be the respectable alternative to the ridiculous and dangerous demagogic interloper, without somehow tipping over into going Establishment.

A tricky maneuver—no, politics sure ain’t beanbag—yet in one way he achieved considerable success. He was, often with the help of state and local party regulars, dominating the delegate-selection process. Cruz’s supporters laughed at Trump’s incompetence in that department, his childish complaining about it, and his insistence that only the outcomes of caucuses and primaries mattered. Well, Trump got the last laugh.

The weeks leading up to the Indiana primary weren’t so much Trump ascending as they were Cruz collapsing. Trump’s jabs at “Lyin’ Ted” and the “rigged system” stuck, because it really did seem as if Cruz was going the backroom, Establishment route against the will of the people. I actually thought Cruz’s approach would work, because all he needed to do in addition to gathering delegates was not tank in all the remaining primaries. The disconnect between votes and delegates needed not to be too pronounced.

It did get too pronounced, in the event. It didn’t turn out to be enough to sell yourself as merely better than an apocalyptic alternative—or, as Cruz put it, an evil, narcissistic, pathological liar.

The simple truth is Cruz never could have won over a majority of voters simply by being himself. To a certain point, he appeared as a fairly authentic or uncalculated candidate focused on conservative principles and policies, and then he didn’t. The sad thing is that, deep down, he’s probably a mostly authentic guy all about meticulously deploying every available tool in the service of his ambitious policy goals. But to win, your image has to somehow convey your substance.

Come on now, you say, what about Trump? His image projects to his supporters much more substance than is really there, and they fill in his blanks. That’s why even the most astute “emperor has no clothes” criticisms of Trump don’t carry much weight. His might be the toughest and most impervious Teflon of all time.

It isn’t pervasive enough, though, to get him all the way to the White House. Trump really is a very uncivilized candidate, about to face a larger and more diverse electorate. His minority faction will become even more of a minority faction. Not only that, the opposition he now faces really knows what it’s doing. The combination of the mainstream media and Democratic operatives will decimate him, revealing the multifarious ways in which he is not fit to be President.

Please don’t understand me to say anything other than that, once it became clear Cruz was the alternative, Republicans should have rallied around him with genuine enthusiasm. I admit I couldn’t quite loosen up enough to be unironic about him, partly because I was pretty certain he would lose in November. “Lose with Cruz,” though, is infinitely better than lose with Trump. Or probably even win with Trump. The Cruz campaign would have salvaged the party’s soul.

In truth, any member of the Republican elite who didn’t embrace Cruz was utterly irresponsible, deluded by the baseless hope that a magical brokered convention would have delivered a third alternative. If Cruz had been nominated and lost, the Republicans would probably have held on to the House and probably the Senate. So it would have been another Clinton presidency checked by a Republican Congress. And maybe the Republicans would have finally learned the hard lesson that, if you don’t have what it takes to win the presidency, you should work with the President you actually have. Hillary Clinton, we can guess, would have been more willing to work with a Republican-controlled Congress than President Obama has been.

In short, the deliberation and compromise our Framers intended might have been restored to our separation-of-powers system.

As things now stand, Republican candidates down ticket have no good alternatives when it comes to campaigning. They can work with Trump, looking fearfully unprincipled and still going down with his ship. Or they can work against Trump, incentivizing the Trump enthusiasts to abandon the other candidates in a party that’s been dismissive of their leader. Either way, the GOP’s brand is bound to repulse large parts of the electorate.

It’s hard to see how the November outcome won’t be a Democratic rout across the board.  Maybe that will somehow cleanse the Republican Party, but it will give us the opposite of good government. Consider, for example, how far to the left the Democratic members of Congress have moved in recent years, and the extent to which Clinton has had to steal much of Sanders’ thunder to fend him off.

Fortunately for the Republicans, I stink as a political scientist, if the claim for science means reliable prediction of the future. It could be, for example, that Trump will surprise me—and us all—once more. I don’t see how, right now, I could be wrong in predicting Donald’s decisive defeat. But if I am, that result won’t be good government, either.

I do think I’m on even firmer ground in explaining what happened. I’m far less angry at Trump or Trump supporters than I am at those who created the vacuum he so readily filled. His was a hostile takeover of a decadent party. More power to him, as they say.