Donald Trump is right: The GOP nomination contest is rigged. So is baseball, which is to say it has rules. They are systematically stacked against hitters. The American constitutional order is systematically rigged against unchecked power, which is precisely why Trump would fail in it—and exactly why he should not be handed the Republican nomination without surviving the crucible of a contested convention a step removed from unfiltered popular will. A contested convention would be the best test of his ability to govern in a contested regime.
For Trump, though, politics is all batting practice: Soft pitches drift across the plate and he swings into an undefended field. There is no “refin[ing] and enlarg[ing]” of the public views at his rallies, and no separation of powers in the nomination process, especially not with Republican procedures that act as accelerants to the demos.
Yet one purpose of a campaign is to serve as a proving ground for the presidency itself. It has been often and rightly said that the first step to becoming a great president is getting elected. The statement typically means that running a successful campaign entails capable administration and inspiring communication, both of which are true and neither of which captures the totality of the constitutional system.
The U.S. Constitution Protects Us From Democracy
If the nominating system outrages Trump, the constitutional regime will scandalize him. It, too, denies supremacy to undiluted popular will. Presidents must operate in a context of separated and shared power as well as filtered public opinion. Indeed, it is no small part of their responsibilities to do the filtering. Far from being the fuel on which they draw, public opinion is supposed to be the flame they dampen. Thus Alexander Hamilton, no advocate of a feeble presidency:
The republican principle demands, that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests. It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend, that they always reason right about the means of promoting it.
Democratizing the nomination process has, by contrast, encouraged presidents to think they can draw on the raw and unfiltered will of the people to promote their agendas. Yet the separation of powers instructs otherwise, both because Congress, too, represents the people—represents it differently, more subtly, more diffusely—and because, as James Madison reminds us in Federalist 10, we operate under the republican rather than the democratic principle, the difference being a government in which “the scheme of representation takes place.”
Allowing the convention to act as what George F. Will incisively calls a “deliberative body” would also be the closest approximation of testing the eventual nominee’s capacity to share a sandbox with others who have also been chosen by ballot, who represent a diversity of interests in all their maddening parochiality, and who focus the public’s views. Significantly, Trump has been trounced in caucuses, which the process-obsessed media sees as a test of his organizational skills. They may more accurately be a test of his ability to survive settings in which people stop and think before voting.
People Change Their Minds Before Making a Better Final Decision
Stopping and thinking is also why the parties should encourage nominating conventions rather than frontload the primary calendar in attempts to crown nominees early. This may help nominees win—may—but it does not prepare them to govern. The reason it only “may” help them win is that, like most democracy fetishes, unleashing the immediate popular will in this case does little to reflect genuine popular will. That is true in two senses: one practical, the other theoretical.
The practical sense is that primary electorates, which are sharply partisan, tend to choose nominees at the ideological edges, leaving more moderate general-election voters fewer choices appealing to them. Fair enough: Those who vote decide.
The theoretical problem, though, arises from the conception of public opinion itself. For Madison, genuine popular will was enduring popular will, which in turn tended—as passions cooled—to align with long-term public interest. Thus Madison, in the course of theorizing the party system—by which he meant to mobilize public opinion in the first place—nonetheless noted that it had to be settled to govern:
As there are cases where the public opinion must be obeyed by the government; so there are cases, where not being fixed, it may be influenced by the government. This distinction, if kept in view, would prevent or decide many debates on the respect due from the government to the sentiments of the people.
What is true for governments is also true for parties. Public opinion about Trump can scarcely be considered settled in a combative primary season that will hardly have been settled at the wire. The party has every right—every responsibility—to exert institutional influence, which is merely a gentler word for what it ought to have been exercising all along: leadership.
One suspects this is precisely what Trump, a career-long and Olympian rent-seeker who has suddenly discovered the virtues of a level field, views as rigged. This is Trump-speak for whatever does not serve Trump’s interests. But this is also exactly why a contested convention would be so instructive for him. If he thinks the nomination system is rigged to impede his success, just wait until he sees the Constitution he apparently has yet to read.