In the weeks immediately surrounding the midterm elections, Donald Trump called for the “termination” of constitutional rule, openly embraced the conspiratorial QAnon movement, pledged support for the Jan. 6 rioters and hosted, over dinner at Mar-a-Lago, the white supremacist Nicholas Fuentes and Ye (once known as Kanye West), both of whom are prominent antisemites.
Does every step Trump takes off the deep end make him a greater liability for the Republican Party, potentially leading to a second Biden term, the loss of the party’s precarious control of the House and an across-the-board weakening of Republican candidates up and down the ticket — from the U.S. Senate to local school boards?
Will Trump’s wrecking ball bid for the presidency fracture his party? Will Trump’s extremism prompt the mainstream right — Mitch McConnell, Ron DeSantis, Glenn Youngkin, Nikki Haley and all the rest — to rise up in revolt? How are the worsening intraparty fissures likely to play out over the next two years?
Most of the strategists and scholars to whom I posed these questions outlined scenarios in which a Trump candidacy is mainly helpful to the Democratic Party and its candidates. They often cited the hurdles confronting those seeking to nominate a more mainstream candidate.
“The Republican Party faces a lose-lose proposition as long as Trump is politically active,” Martin Wattenberg, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, wrote by email in response to my inquiry.
“If Trump succeeds in getting the nomination again, it would seem that his brand is so damaged among Independents and some Republicans that he will be unelectable,” Wattenberg continued. “And if Trump loses his nomination fight, it seems highly likely that he will charge that he is a victim of voter fraud and damage the legitimacy of the Republican nominee.”
If that were not enough to satisfy Trump’s thirst for vengeance, Wattenberg suggested that “it is certainly conceivable that he would mount an independent candidacy and split some of the Republican vote. Continuing his fight as an independent would enable him to continue to raise big sums of money and attract the attention that he so intently craves. All in all, it could well be a disaster for the G.O.P.”
While Trump has suffered setbacks on both the political and the legal front, no one I contacted suggested that he should be counted out in the 2024 nomination fight. Instead, just as was the case in 2016, the most favorable situation in 2024 for Trump would be a multicandidate field, as opposed to a single opponent who could consolidate those opposed to him.
“It is hard to see President Trump getting more votes in 2024 than he did in the 2020 general election,” Arthur Lupia, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said by email:
The split in the Republican Party, Lupia continued,
Lupia argued that “Despite that split, there is little or no chance that either faction will split off into a third party”:
While exploring various scenarios, Robert Erikson, a political scientist at Columbia, warned that there was a substantial chance that unanticipated and unpredictable developments would radically change the course of politics over the next two years and beyond:
Instead, Erikson wrote by email,
But, Erikson argued,
I asked Erikson and others how serious the current divisions within the Republican Party are.
“The fissures in the Republican Party are larger than usual, but still comparable to those that regularly occur in American political parties,” he replied, but “compared to the realignment of the parties in the civil-rights era, the current conflict in the Republican Party is mild.”
Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, sees some potential for destructive intraparty conflict:
Would the defeat of Trump in the primaries by DeSantis, Youngkin or another candidate provoke a damaging schism in the general election?
Jacobson replied by email:
But, Jacobson cautioned, “Never underestimate the motivating force of negative partisanship; you really have to hate Democrats and want your party in power to show up and vote for someone with Herschel Walker’s character, but the vast majority of Georgia Republicans” did so.
Trump, Jacobson wrote,
A key question, according to Jacobson, is whether Trump’s
I posed the same question to all those I queried for today’s column:
Only Jacobson offered an answer:
The continued polarization of the two parties, especially at the extreme left and right, creates complex interactions within each party and between each party.
Trump, according to David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, transformed the political environment in ways that have made it difficult, if not impossible, for other prominent Republicans to renounce some of the more extreme groups:
Trump, Hopkins notes, “became a hero to Republican voters not just by adopting conservative policy positions, but also by refusing to make rhetorical concessions to Democrats, journalists, and other perennial conservative nemeses.”
Sean Westwood, a political scientist at Dartmouth, contended in an email that
In this struggle for the power to set the agenda in the House of Representatives, Westwood argued, the Republicans’ mediocre performance in the 2022 midterm elections empowered the party’s right wing:
Robert Y. Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia, suggested that Republican Party leaders could make a concerted effort to block a Trump nomination, but it might take more fortitude than they have exhibited in the past. “This is one plausible resolution: first and foremost, if Republicans are thinking rationally and give highest priority to winning, they should see that Biden would defeat Trump in 2024 since he did so in 2020,” Shapiro wrote, “and since then Trump has been damaged by Jan. 6 and other investigations, and election deniers got trounced in 2022. DeSantis has been polling better than Trump against Biden and Youngkin probably would too.”
One crucial but politically difficult step party leaders could take would be to unite behind — and endorse — a single candidate while pressuring the others to withdraw and, in Shapiro’s words, leave “only one such candidate opposing Trump in the primaries — otherwise multiple candidates would split the vote and Trump would be the party candidate, as happened in 2016.”
Eric Groenendyk — a political scientist at the University of Memphis and a co-author of “Intraparty Polarization in American Politics” with Michael Sances and Kirill Zhirkov, political scientists at Temple University and the University of Virginia — wrote me by email:
This, in Groenendyk’s view,
Most of those I contacted downplayed the possibility that Trump would run as a third-party candidate if he were rejected as the Republican nominee, citing his aversion to losing and the logistical and financial difficulties of setting up a third party bid. Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, disagreed.
I asked Hetherington: “If a DeSantis or Youngkin were to defeat Trump for the nomination, would either of them alienate Trump’s supporters, or could either one keep those voters in the tent?”
Hetherington replied, “As long as Trump doesn’t run as a third-party candidate or actively tell his supporters to stay home, I suspect they’ll still vote Republican. What motivates them is their hatred of the Democrats.”
But, Hetherington wrote, “There is every reason to think that Trump might actually do those things” — tell his loyalists to stay home on Election Day or run as a third-party candidate — “if he’s not the nominee”:
Westwood noted that “it is not clear what power Trump will have to fight with if he doesn’t get the nomination in 2024, especially if he happens to be in a prison cell, which is increasingly likely.”
In fact, however, conviction and imprisonment would not, under the Constitution, preclude a Trump candidacy and might in fact provide additional motivation, both for him and his most zealous supporters. Zijia Song, a reporter at Bloomberg, laid out the possible criminal charges Trump could face on Nov. 15 and then posed the question, “Could any of this disqualify him as a presidential candidate?”
Which gets to the larger question that supersedes all the ins and outs of the maneuvering over the Republican presidential nomination and the future of the party.
How, in a matter of less than a decade, could this once-proud country have evolved to the point at which there is a serious debate over choosing a presidential candidate who is a lifelong opportunist, a pathological and malignant narcissist, a sociopath, a serial liar, a philanderer, a tax cheat who does not pay his bills, a man who socializes with Holocaust deniers, who has pardoned his criminal allies, who encouraged a violent insurrection, who, behind a wall of bodyguards, is a coward, and who, without remorse, continuously undermines American democracy?
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