Hobson’s choice: The Donald versus the Republican convention
15 Apr 2016|

We’ve all heard about catch-22, double bind, Hobson’s choice. All these expressions describe situations in which you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And it’s precisely the quandary the Republican Party finds itself in as it grapples with how to handle Donald Trump. If the GOP nominates the flamboyant billionaire, he will lead America’s centre-right party to electoral annihilation; if he is denied the presidential candidacy, Republicans will split. Get ready for the conservative crackup.

At the moment, Trump leads the primary race by about 200 delegates. He has won 19 states, nine more than his closest rival Ted Cruz. And he has electrified an angry base of supporters who believe the party—and Washington—has betrayed them. But although he is expected to win primaries in his home state New York on April 19 and in other parts of the northeast on April 26, on current projections he is unlikely to amass the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination outright.

If he indeed fails to win a majority of delegates by the final primaries on June 7, he may lose the nomination at the national convention six weeks later. The party rules are clear: failing a majority, there could be a contested (or open or brokered) convention, with multiple ballots and arcane floor procedures to determine the nominee. What to do?

On the one hand, the stop-Trump movement—which, remember, comprises a majority of party members—could hold their noses and make Trump the heir to Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan at the convention in Cleveland.

A maddening experience for many life-long Republicans, to be sure, but the upside is that the 35-40 percent of loyal Trump supporters would stay in the party and campaign energetically for their candidate. Under Trump, Republicans could appeal to many blue-collar Democrats disoriented by socio-economic change as well as many disillusioned folks who don’t usually vote.

Appealing to the angry white male when the white vote continues to decline as a share of the electorate may sound absurd. But according to voting analyst Sean Trende, five million fewer whites voted in the 2012 election than in 2008; most represent a less affluent and more working-class demographic (not a natural Republican constituency); so support for a Trump candidacy could carry electoral advantages in a nation with voluntary voting.

The downside, of course, is that Trump—the most polarizing political figure of the modern era with record high ‘unfavourability’ ratings—would alienate women, minorities and independents. That would probably deliver not just a President Hillary Clinton, but also a Democrat Senate and a liberal Supreme Court. It could also imperil the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

On the other hand, the Republicans could deny Trump the nomination at what would be the first contested Republican convention since 1976 and head to the November election with their dignity intact.

Trump is widely regarded as a rude and crude buffoon who would upset the sensitivities of a clear majority of people, including many Republicans. He also represents a threat to the centre-right principles of small government, tough national security and social conservatism that have defined the GOP for decades. Trump is anti-political correctness, but he is no Reaganite: he instead represents the kind of populist and nationalist movements now dismantling established parties across Europe.

Moreover, Republicans calculate that a Trump-less ticket would increase the prospects of Republicans holding the House, perhaps the Senate—useful bulwarks against a Clinton White House in 2017.

Not surprisingly, the notion of denying Trump the nomination is all the rage among the smart set in Washington. And given Ted Cruz’s far superior organizing team, the Texan senator is in good position to wipe the (convention) floor against Trump in July.

What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty. If Trump is stopped, however justified and legal a contested convention would be, those energized supporters Trump has tapped into might go ballistic, perhaps literally. Denying Trump the nomination, even though he wins more delegates and states than his rivals, would reaffirm their trumped-up charges that the ‘corrupt’ system is ‘rigged’ against outsiders.

So the Republicans are stuck in the catch-22 conundrum that I identified earlier: nominate Trump and they are stuffed; deny Trump and they’re probably still stuffed.

The reality is that the Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war. Trump is an obnoxious nationalist who appeals to angry white men but aggravates Middle America. Cruz is an ideologue, a hero to the party’s right-wing base, who also scares independents, minorities and women.

John Kasich, the Ohio governor and only remaining candidate, is a mainstream conservative with a sound policy record. But although he represents the greatest threat to the Democrats in a general election, he doesn’t resonate with the party’s grassroots. And the idea of parachuting a non-primary candidate into the nomination, as Republican Speaker Paul Ryan recognised this week, would upset virtually everyone.   

What we are witnessing here is the demise of American conservatism, as we have known it since the Reagan ascendancy in the late 1970s. It’s leaderless, incapable of philosophical reflection and splintering into several cantankerous factions. And by embracing a doctrinal agenda on social issues, many Republicans are out of touch with an electorate that is increasingly more progressive. These are dark days for American conservatives.