Let me start with something I believe is all but certain: If Donald Trump does not win the Republican nomination, he will run as an Independent. According to a new Suffolk University / USA Today national poll, 68 percent of Trump loyalists say they would vote for Trump if he were to run as an Independent. Granted, this portion of the poll is “based on a subset of fewer than 100 voters total and thus [carries] a much larger margin of error than the general poll.” Be that as it may, even a generous margin of error would indicate that at least half of his most dedicated supporters would jump ship with him were he to run as an Independent. What’s more shocking is that, in that same poll, only 18 percent of his loyalists said they would not vote for him as an Independent. That means Trump has the potential to syphon off huge numbers of voters from the “establishment” candidate, should he run as an Independent.
This election cycle has done too much to stroke Trump’s ego for him to back down now. He has the absolute attention of the media, despite his constant insistence that they are “scum.” He is capable of generating international uproar with a single tweet or press release. As Dara Lind of Vox pointed out, Donald Trump is running a campaign “to promote the greater glory of Donald Trump” — and he has achieved more than probably even he could have dreamed. So, if splitting the Republican ticket and in effect handing the Democrats the presidency is what it takes to keep the spotlight on Trump, there’s no question in my mind that he will do just that.
With that in mind, let’s consider the following scenarios:
Scenario #1: Donald Trump doesn’t win the Republican nomination, but runs as an Independent.
Remember that silly “loyalty pledge” the GOP circulated back in September, in which they asked all of the Republican candidates to state that they would support whomever won the nomination? As Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation tweeted:
Really think Trump will abide by “The Pledge”? Got a bridge to sell you.
— Katrina vandenHeuvel (@KatrinaNation) September 4, 2015
Trump has already indicated that he might run as an Independent if he’s not treated “fairly” by the other candidates. Of course, adjectives like “fair” are very fluid in the mind of Trump. In this case, he’ll probably point to the times his fellow candidates have condemned his remarks as evidence of unfairness.
As discussed earlier, if Trump goes this route, it will almost certainly split the party ticket and the Democrats will win the general election.
Scenario #2: Trump wins the Republican nomination but loses the general election.
If other Republican candidates stick by their pledge to support the eventual nominee, and Trump turns out to be that nominee, they’ll find themselves in a very sticky situation. In this scenario, not only are they supporting the losing candidate, but they’re supporting the losing candidate who embodies the darkest and most vile factions of the Republican party. A Trump nomination with the backing of other establishment Republicans will do untold damage to the public perception of the party, severely hindering its chances of winning another presidential election for years or decades.
Scenario #3: Trump wins the Republican nomination and wins the general election.
Though this is the only scenario in which the GOP actually wins the presidential election, it’s perhaps the most damaging to the party as a whole. Trumps ideals alone are harming the GOP in likely irreparable ways by themselves. If he is able to put even a fraction of them into practice, the consequences will be nearly insurmountable for the GOP. And with Republican control of the House and Senate, it’s altogether likely that more than just a few of his proposals would be realized.
A Trump presidency would be — to borrow language from the demagogue himself — an absolute disaster. One of the all-time worst presidencies in the history of the United States. His economic policy would likely usher in a new recession or depression; his foreign policy would plunge the United States into costly wars, destroy tenuous relationships we’ve been nursing back to health, and ignite new terrorist attacks; and his domestic policy based in racism would tear at the very fabric of this country. Repairing the damage he could do with just his ignorance would take decades — fixing what he destroys with his aggressive intolerance might take centuries. If Republicans choose to stand by him while he inflicts such harm on America and the rest of the world, they can say goodbye to their presidential aspirations for the foreseeable future.
Considering the possibilities, it’s clear that Republican presidential nominees need to put as much distance between themselves and Donald Trump as possible, and they need to start now. Which means Scenario #1 — a split Republican ticket — is actually their best option. It will mean forfeiting the 2016 presidential election. But it will also give them plausible deniability of idealogical similarities to Trump. If they want a shot at the presidency any time before the 2116 presidential election, they need to get smart and cut their losses.
One way or the other, the Republican party has lost the 2016 presidential election. Even a Donald Trump “win” next November would be a crushing defeat for the party itself. The question is whether they will do what is necessary to preserve the future of their party.