This presidential race has already landed in the history books. Never before have so many prominent Republicans publicly trashed their own presumptive nominee — with TV ads, speeches, tweetsnark, and eleventh-hour sabotage.
This is all very weird, because Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian fanboy actually stands a decent chance of getting elected. Indeed he does.
What a spectacle we’ve witnessed this week. A Republican senator from Nebraska says he will never vote for Donald Trump, because “the presidency is not our national embodiment of Nietzschean Will.” The Republican governor of Massachusetts says the same (“I question whether he has the temperament” to lead America.) Sixty Republican foreign policy veterans warn, in a newly-released letter, that Trump would “make America less safe” and pose “a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States.” One signer says, “I would sooner vote for Joseph Stalin.”
Let’s see, who else …? Republican donors are financing new TV ads that highlight Trump’s racism. Stuart Stevens, a top party strategist, calls Trump “evil” and says: “Every Republican, from elected officials to super volunteers to leaders of the party, must ask themselves what it will mean for the GOP and, vastly more important, the country, to play a role enabling this hateful man.” And in a speech today, Mitt Romney says: “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers.” The gentlemanly Mittster is rarely so scathing.
Many of these people detest Trump for moral reasons, but many are simply being pragmatic. They’re convinced that Trump is Hillary Clinton’s ticket to power; Tim Miller, a strategist for an anti-Trump super PAC, says in a statement that “a KKK sympathizer who screwed over regular people to enrich himself isn’t going to win the White House.”
I’m actually not so sure about that. I can easily foresee a Trump victory scenario:
1. He’s a big reason why Republican primary turnout is hitting record highs. Trump says he’s luring a lot of people who normally don’t vote, and he’s right. By contrast, Democratic turnout, when measured against the party’s last open race in 2008, is sharply down. Hillary isn’t stoking Trumpish enthusiasm — at this point, three million fewer voters have cast Democratic ballots than in ’08 — and even though primary turnout doesn’t necessarily portend autumn turnout, it suggests that Hillary might have problems re-crafting the Obama coalition.
2. And the Obama coalition — which features heavy black, Hispanic, and Millenial turnout — may be more crucial than ever, because Trump appears to be making heavy inroads with the ticked-off white working class. Those folks, who never warmed to Obama, are populous in the Rust Belt – particularly in the factory-shuttered towns that dot Ohio, Wisconsin, and non-urban Pennsylvania. Many of them feel betrayed by the political system; many feel that voting is a waste of time. Trump speaks to their anger at being left behind. If he pulls more of them to the polls, it potentially changes the game in states that have lately been voting Democratic in presidential years.
3. The mood this year is fiercely anti-establishment/outsider. Hillary, who has been on the national stage for 24 years, is the establishment insider. She talks all too often like a calculating politician; Trump does not. He can cite any economic or societal ill that he wants – wage inequality, jobs going overseas – and simply ask, “What has Hillary ever done to fix that? What did her husband’s administration ever do to fix that?”
4. Trump, like any bully, has an instinct for targeting an opponent’s weaknesses. He can bang away at Hillary’s email scandal, particularly if (as seems likely) the federal investigators keep the story in the news. The scandal (or “scandal”) is arguably a big deal only to Hillary haters who’d never vote for her anyway, but Trump can use it to feed the perception, shared by many independents, that Hillary is slippery and dishonest. (Granted, Trump himself is a serial liar, but he’s also a master at playing offense.)
5. Trump rails against the special interests and big-shot donors; Hillary is widely perceived as a creature of the special interests and big-shot donors. Voters who are fed up with insiders may well be receptive to Trump’s likely attacks on the Clinton Foundation’s ties to donors, both foreign and domestic. And if she persists in refusing to release transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs…well, in the words of southern Democratic strategist Mudcat Saunders, “I think Trump could beat her like a tied-up billy goat.”
None of that might happen. Trump’s detestable demagoguery and his dearth of creds could indeed trigger the electoral disaster that so many Republicans fear. But what’s most commendable is that some of these Republicans aren’t fixated on winning and losing. They see the bigger picture. Stuart Stevens says it best: “There is something at stake here larger than one election. To support Trump is to support the hate and racism he embodies. That is simply an intolerable moral position for any political party.”
Earlier this week, two high school basketball teams faced off in rural Iowa. One of the teams had a high percentage of black, Hispanic, and Native American players. White kids in the bleachers decided to taunt those players. Care to guess what their chant was?
“Trump! Trump! Trump!”
This is how it begins. If my worst-case scenario proves correct, I shudder to think how it ends.