Even Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters would agree he has made it very difficult for party leaders and voters to throw their unconditional support behind the Republican nominee. Like a jilted lover, though, should Trump go down in flames in the general election he would likely blame the party.
If he determines there is not a viable future within the Republican Party for his brand of populism, he could very well form a legitimate and formidable third party. With him would go millions of Republican voters. This could be a devastating and possibly fatal blow for the GOP.
After receiving an encouraging lift in the polls following the Republican convention, Trump stumbled yet again with remarks the media have exploited. The Kahn affair, his delay in endorsing Republican stalwarts, and his addiction to posting snide and impulsive Twitter remarks have all contributed to his nosedive following the Democratic convention. It has also encouraged a growing number of Republicans to head for the exits.
Until last week, it was clear Trump was unwilling or unable to successfully pivot from bellicose primary challenger to serious general election candidate. Yet the most recent assaults against him, many from his own party members, seem to have made a real impression on Trump and his team. If, however, he does not have the discipline to maintain a focused, issues-based campaign, he will not have to worry about his current backlash from the NeverTrump camp or the assault Democrats and the media are launching; he will self-destruct.
The NeverTrump camp, many Republican establishment insiders, and a growing number of jittery congressional candidates aren’t willing to wait to find out. They’re outta here! This includes 50 high-level security chiefs, all neoconservative Republicans, who recently denounced Trump. Possibly the most insulting salvo to the Trump election bid to date is Evan McMullin’s new run as a third-party conservative alternative.
As justified or not as these actions may be, there remains a giant elephant in the room that few seem interested in discussing right now: given the cumulative damage from this friendly fire, if Trump loses big in November, should anyone be surprised or offended if Trump bolts from the party? More importantly, should anyone be surprised or offended if the millions of voters who passionately support Trump decide to leave with him?
Have all of these Republicans who are so anxious to distance themselves from Trump really thought this through? Presidential politics aside, have they given any consideration to the destructive impact this might have on future down-ballot elections and the balance of power in the House and Senate? My guess is they’re not thinking that far ahead, but they should be.
Populism Isn’t Going Away Soon
As most of us know, the rise of populism is not unique to the United States. Across the pond, as the Brexit vote and several recent elections throughout Europe have made clear, voters are tired of being dictated to by an unelected bureaucracy out of Brussels. They have insisted unequivocally that open borders and the accelerating move toward political and economic globalism is not for them. As a result, the European Union’s survival is now in question.
The real concern of the financial and political elites is not only what this means for the future of the EU, but that it could also eventually unravel the entire global order that has dominated international politics and finance since the end of World War II. But an increasing number of European nationalists don’t care. They want to define their own country, culture, and way of doing business and living their lives, independent of what some central European governing body dictates.
Few would disagree that Trump’s brand of populism, built on a platform of economic nationalism, parallels what is currently taking place in Europe. This is a worldwide development. Trump calls it a “movement.” The energy and enthusiasm behind his message seems to confirm this. The growing momentum of a populist message based on the preeminence of national sovereignty and domestic prosperity will undoubtedly continue for some time, as a growing number of middle-class Americans on both sides of the aisle feel increasingly disenfranchised and alienated. The establishment wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties have yet to fully come to terms with this reality.
If neither of the two established parties is willing to embrace this irreversible trend, there is good reason to believe a populist platform would naturally go its own way and take scores of Republicans and Democrats with it. The new party would logically employ a devastating divide-and-conquer strategy against the traditional two-party system, which would disrupt and permanently alter party politics in America.
Political Compromise Would Be a Winning Trump Strategy
As we learned during the primary season, populist platforms heavily influenced both parties. Trump’s campaign defeated 16 talented Republican opponents, while Bernie Sanders’ unusual blend of socialism and populism gave Hillary a serious run for her money.
To assume that because they share various populist positions Trump and Sanders are unified in their overall message is obviously far from accurate. But in the three areas that define Trump’s platform of economic nationalism—trade, defense, and immigration—the two share very similar, if not identical, views on trade and defense.
Why is this important? Because if Trump decides to form a third party, he will need to recruit a significant number of Democrats for it to be a viable contender. This would require political compromises. To maintain his loyal base of former Republicans, Trump would find it very difficult to move to the Left on social issues. But to reel in a significant number of Democrats, he would likely be far less adamant than he is today in advancing conservative fiscal policies such as deficit reduction and regulatory and tax reform.
Is this Trump’s preferred tack? No. He is a pro-growth, pro-business candidate. But to significantly expand the party’s base he will make such compromises, as long as he can secure his core priorities in trade, defense, and immigration. If he is successful in these areas first, he would then be better positioned to subsequently advance his more conservative fiscal objectives.
This new populist party would have the ability to position itself as the pragmatic, unifying party, seeking to reach out to all Americans, both conservative and liberal, who fundamentally agree with a practical, America First platform. It’s a winning hand. The new party would not only be well positioned to overtake the progressive Democrat machine by 2020, but also likely put the Republican Party in a distant third place in the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans.
Republican establishment leaders and many conservative pundits would no doubt consider this hypothesis absurd. Then again, these same people said it would be impossible for Trump to become the Republican nominee. Regardless, if intransigent party members refuse to consider the possibility of a daunting populist defection in the form of a serious third-party launch after the 2016 election, they will have only themselves to blame if and when it occurs.
Conservatives Can Use Populism
I’ve previously contended that conservatism in America cannot survive without first applying a heavy dose of populism. Consider the argument.
Over the last 25 years under two Republican and two Democrat administrations, America’s march toward globalism has gutted Middle America economically. The rich have gotten richer, the poor have become increasingly more dependent on government, and the middle class has been squeezed like a wet towel.
The net result has been that the have-nots are quickly outnumbering the haves. When that happens, the conservative platform is in serious jeopardy. Why? Because there is no way conservatives can make a compelling case to the majority of voters on critical issues such as regulatory reform, deficit reduction, abolishing Obamacare, entitlement reform, etc. when the majority of voters increasingly rely on the federal government for their survival.
That’s where we are today. Not until we bring Middle America back to a position of prosperity and optimism can we convincingly remind folks of President Reagan’s words: “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
Trump’s message is very straightforward, and for many this simplicity made him an appealing candidate in the primaries. The message is: “Donald Trump wants to make America great again. He will do this by applying America First principles. This means that he will bring jobs and manufacturing back to America by ensuring that fair trade policy governs free trade philosophy; he will prioritize our defense policy based on America’s vital interests; and he will firmly protect our borders and enforce our immigration laws in order to secure the rights and livelihoods of American citizens.”
Vague? Yes. Simplistic, and lacking in specific policy? Certainly. But is it not a reasonable starting point for conservatives to begin rebuilding the Republican Party? Right now, Republicans have the exclusive opportunity to help mold and steer a powerful movement that is inexorable and irreversible. Their refusal to do so could result in a gigantic voting bloc striking out on its own, never to return to the fold.
If strict conservatives and party leaders continue to chip away at Trump and his campaign, and if their actions contribute to his defeat, his reaction will likely be swift and severe. I’m not sure Trump is the sort of bear they want to be poking right now.
Many wonder how these folks, by turning their backs on Trump, can be willing to hand the Supreme Court and a third Obama term over to Hillary Clinton. Perhaps another question they should be asking is: why are they so willing to risk the survival of the Republican Party?