Many journalists and political commentators have already opined on the problems which would accompany the selection of Donald J. Trump as the Republican Party’s nominee for the highest office in the land. Many conservatives are concerned that Mr. Trump would lose to Hillary Clinton in the general election, given his poor poll numbers against the former secretary of state. A survey conducted this week in Utah, a state which has voted Republican in every presidential contest since 1968, revealed that Trump would narrowly lose the state in a one-on-one matchup against Secy. Clinton.
Others have argued that Mr. Trump, whose juvenile humor and penchant for personal assaults have attracted much attention this election cycle, lacks the temperament to become president. Vanity Fair even published a piece which sought to characterize Mr. Trump’s demeanor and public statements as evidence of narcissistic personality disorder. And conservative writer George Will has discussed how Trump’s lack of fealty to conservative principles will cause the Republican Party to suffer defeat in November against Hillary Clinton.
Yet Mr. Trump’s supporters would dismiss these criticisms, at least in part. On the first point, general election polls this early in the presidential election have little predictive value. An article published in 2007 by the Pew Research Center explained that early general election matchups “are mostly wrong about who will win the White House,” and an extensive analysis by political scientists Christopher Wlezian and Robert Erikson of general election polling has shown that “polls from the beginning of the election year have virtually no predictive power.”1 Wlezian and Erikson’s examination also concluded that it is not until April that general election polls begin to carry some meaningful predictive value, but even then, they are only mildly predictive of the eventual outcome. Therefore, although Mr. Trump has performed the worst of all the other Republican presidential candidates in head-to-head general election matchups thus far, we should take these results with a grain of salt, at least for now, and not dismiss the New York businessman out of hand.
On the second point, though Trump does have his (many) moments of infantile behavior, he has demonstrated at least some capacity to restrain himself and act presidential. We saw this occur in the most recent Republican debate, where the Donald largely refrained from attacking his opponents, and in the businessman’s speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s conference this week. Attempting to characterize Mr. Trump’s ego as some kind of mental disorder or incapacity, as Vanity Fair attempted to do, is nothing more than tabloid journalism.
Supporters of Mr. Trump would also argue that George Will’s critique of the brash businessman’s conservative credentials misses the mark. In general elections, partisan candidates suffer the consequences of their brinksmanship at the ballot box unless they manage to convince moderates to come aboard. Mitt Romney, for example, drew a higher percentage of conservatives to the polls in 2012 than did Ronald Reagan in his 1980 election victory, but Mr. Romney’s poor performance among moderates—whom he lost by 15 points—cost him the election. Assuming that Donald Trump can obtain the GOP nomination, his moderate and liberal policy positions—such as his support for federal funding of Planned Parenthood—will only help him in a national election, where a centrist electorate decides the outcome.
Though I could summon a bevy of counterarguments to refute these points, let us assume for a moment that Trump’s supporters are correct on all three counts. Let’s assume that the general elections polls right now, which almost all show the Donald getting trounced by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are not predictive of the outcome on November 8th, 2016. Let’s presume also that Donald Trump is well-suited for the presidency, having the temperament and the judgment to be the leader of the free world, and that his moderate ideological dispositions might actually help him defeat the Democratic nominee for president by attracting centrist voters to his candidacy.
Even if all of these assumptions are held to be true, Republicans should still fight tooth-and-nail to defeat Donald Trump because his victory would fundamentally undermine the Republican Party and its critical role in American democracy.
Political parties are important for two main reasons. First, they represent particular visions of how society is and how it should be. Parties make it possible for voters to choose between these different perspectives—for example, between the desires for a smaller or a larger government—without necessarily knowing everything that there is to know about every single candidate who runs for public office. In other words, parties enable a voter to make an educated choice at the ballot box simply by casting his ballot for the candidate who identifies herself with the political party—and the political philosophy—which the voter himself finds agreeable. Second, by attaching holders of public office to distinct philosophical frameworks, political parties make the government comprehensible to its citizens. It would be impossible to make sense of Congress if the viewpoints of its 535 members could not be grouped by some sort of political party affiliation. When we say that the U.S. House of Representatives is currently controlled by Republicans, we are conveying something meaningful about the ideological makeup of the House as an institution and about the values and philosophies of its individual members.
But in order to realize these benefits, political parties must nominate presidential candidates who represent their values. If they fail to do so, the particular vision which the party represents will crumble into a confused mess as the nominee, who stands as the ostensible representative of the ideals of the party, presents a set of fundamental principles which directly clash with the views that he is supposed to defend. And though Donald Trump claims to embrace some conservative views, his most important policy ideas sharply contrast with the GOP’s core doctrine. Of all seventeen of the initial contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump is the only one who has categorically opposed any reforms of Social Security or Medicare. In a party which stands for a strong national defense, Mr. Trump has raised doubts as to whether the U.S. should remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—the “backbone of Western security policies since the Cold War“—and has intimated that he would remove American support for South Korea and Japan, which he sees as free-riders on the U.S.’s commitments in the Asia-Pacific region.2 He is a strong proponent of eminent domain3, a practice which conservatives regard as a transgression of our most fundamental property rights. And most notably, Donald Trump has railed against free trade agreements with Mexico, Japan, and other countries, saying that he would “renegotiate or break” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as president. Yet the last Republican Party platform hailed the TPP as an opportunity to “open Asian markets to U.S. products” and even proposed a “worldwide multilateral agreement among nations committed to the principles of open markets.”
If the decidedly not conservative Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, the party will be too hopelessly divided to articulate a clear vision of what it stands for in the months before the November general election. At his current pace, if Trump manages to clinch the nomination, he will do so without winning a majority of the popular vote. Yet as the party’s standard bearer, he would become the chief representative of the conservative worldview, a worldview against which he has openly rebelled throughout his campaign. This dissonance would ultimately lead to disaster, as most general election voters would conflate Mr. Trump’s views—particularly his unpopular stances on undocumented and Muslim immigration—with those of the Republican Party, even if most conservatives in fact strenuously disagree with his policies. And as the GOP’s fundamental philosophical tenets are pulled into his orbit, Republican candidates for public office all across the country would either have to renounce their party membership—thereby tacitly acknowledging that Mr. Trump is indeed accurately representing the GOP’s principles—or furiously deny that Donald Trump is in fact representative of their particular views on the issues or of the Republican Party as a whole. But with voters demonstrating an increasing tendency to vote for the same party in down-ballot elections as they do in the presidential contest, these arguments are unlikely to have much of an effect.
Even beyond the 2016 election, nominating Donald Trump would have severe repercussions for the Republican Party. As America’s population has become more and more diverse, the GOP has painstakingly worked to expand its outreach in minority communities and become more inclusive. Selecting Mr. Trump would upend all of that hard work and indicate that the party is willing to stand with a person who has called for barring all Muslims from entering the United States, who has promised to carry out the indiscriminate mass deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants, and who condones violence against protestors at his campaign rallies and stump speeches. If the GOP has any desire to survive beyond this November, it must defeat Donald Trump at all costs and resoundingly reject his poisonous rhetoric.
- See Erickson, Robert S., and Christopher Wlezien. The Timeline of Presidential Elections. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2012. Print. 3-5.
- In an interview on Meet the Press, Trump said: “We have 28,000 soldiers on the line in South Korea between the madman [Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea] and them…We get practically nothing compared to the cost of this [involvement].” Of course, this statement is demonstrably false—South Korea spends nearly a billion dollars to support the relatively small American troop presence there—but it does reveal the contrast between Mr. Trump and the Republican Party on foreign military commitments. While Mr. Trump views U.S. involvement in the Korean peninsula and around the world as a monetary and strategic cost, most Republicans regard international engagement as a tremendous strategic benefit which far outweighs its costs. In fact, the 2012 Republican Party platform emphasized the need for “U.S. leadership in the Asian-Pacific community” and increased engagement with South Korea.
- The Supreme Court legitimized the practice of private-to-private eminent domain—where the government transfers property from one private owner to another, usually for the ostensible purpose of economic development—in the landmark 2005 case Kelo v. City of New London. Proponents of the Court’s expansive definition of eminent domain, including Mr. Trump, argue that this sort of government-facilitated property transference is necessary in order to kickstart economic development in blighted areas. Opponents of the Kelo decision, however, believe that this view of eminent domain, which allows the government to forcibly transfer private property from one owner to another as long as “just compensation” is provided to the original owner and the transference is “for public use,” legitimizes the abuse of private property rights, particularly those of the poor, and enriches wealthy businessmen like Trump who have the means, knowledge, and access to use eminent domain to their advantage. As conservative Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his dissenting opinion in Kelo, “[a]llowing the government to take property solely for public purposes is bad enough, but extending the concept of public purpose to encompass any economically beneficial goal guarantees that these losses will fall disproportionately on poor communities.”
Image Source: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons