The major party nominees for president in the current election seem set. Donald Trump will now likely amass the 1,237 delegate votes he needs to become the official Republican nominee, no other candidates remaining active in the race. Bernie Sanders continues to run doggedly against Hillary Clinton and will likely leave her short of the 2,383 elected delegate votes she needs at the Democratic convention. But Hillary will, barring an unforeseen collapse or a Justice Department indictment over her e-mailer server, come to the convention with a plurality of such delegates, and with the vast majority of the Party’s 712 unelected superdelegates committed to her.
According to polls, this is a prospect that nauseates a majority of the electorate whose votes have made it possible.
Donald Trump is disliked/distrusted/openly loathed by about 65% of likely general election voters. The same view is held of Hillary Clinton by some 56% of the electorate. This is different from the customary indifference with which voters contemplate their presidential choices. In 1976, Jimmy Carter ran against Gerald Ford. So far as I am aware, no one ever hated Gerald Ford and a fair number of Americans were grateful to him for not being Richard Nixon. No one had ever heard of Jimmy Carter. The contest between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988 elicited a giant yawn. The same was true of that between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, although plenty of people would soon regret their indifference.
Perhaps this is the way it should be, since democracies regularly produce mediocrities for political office, a point observed in the 1830s by Alexis de Tocqueville. Considering the vast powers for harm now concentrated in the American presidency, perhaps it is not the worst outcome that we need seldom fear electing someone with the imagination and intelligence to use them. The balance of powers so artfully constructed for us by the Founding Fathers has long since broken down. It is chiefly stupidity and ineptitude that save us. Consider where we might be now had George W. Bush not been so stupid, or Barack Obama so inept. Consider Richard Nixon, who was neither stupid nor inept, and had a wide streak of evil. People still shudder at the Nixon presidency, and with good reason.
In 2016, people are doing a lot of worrying about Donald Trump. Thinking of Hillary Clinton does not necessarily make them feel better. It is one thing to choose between mediocrities, or even the lesser of two evils. It is another to choose between candidates who inspire active repugnance. The common wisdom is that Hillary wins this race because she scares people less, and that when she gets the nuclear black box she is less likely than Trump to mistake it for a Christmas toy. I’m not buying that assumption, though. Voters are angry this year, and if there was ever a candidate on the American scene who knows how to not merely elicit fear and anger but to channel it, it is Donald Trump.
No single group in America is more terrified at the prospect of nominating Trump than those who are about to do it, namely the leaders and functionaries of the Republican Party. The real story of the 2016 election thus far is the revolt of the Republican base—a hybrid collection of the disgruntled and the disaffected, put together Frankenstein-style in the 1970s and 1980s by clever (and, even by American standards) cynical operatives—against the Party establishment. (A similar revolt has taken place among Democrats, but chiefly involving the disenfranchised young and, to this point, falling short of success.) The two living past Republican presidents, Bush père et fils, have both announced they will not attend the Party convention, not that they will be missed. The Party’s immediate past presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, openly denounces Trump. His running mate, the now-Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, has withheld his endorsement, at least for the moment. Ryan has challenged Trump to prove that he is actually a Republican, which of course he is not, except opportunistically. Oh, yes, he does favor tax cuts for the rich, deporting Mexican workers, and bloating the Pentagon to the size of a Thanksgiving parade balloon—all good talking points on the Romney-Ryan campaign trail four years ago—but he also favors gay rights, détente with the Russians, and job protection for what’s left of the middle class. What kind of Republican is that?
Which brings us to the Republican Party’s golden opportunity this year.
There has been much talk in recent months of anti-Trump Republicans deserting the official Party nominee and backing a third candidate. Last fall and winter, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, offered himself as a national savior on an independent ticket. Bloomberg withdrew when it appeared that only his wife, his dog, and a couple of newspaper pundits took him up on the offer, but that was when there still seemed a chance of stopping Trump’s march to the Republican nomination.
Trump and Bloomberg actually have a good deal in common. They are both billionaires and both narcissists of the first water. Both have long regarded themselves as indispensable to the survival of the Republic. Bloomberg, of course, has run New York City, a harder job than being president. He ran it so well, in his own estimation, that he insisted on a third term in defiance of the City Charter, and got away with it. That is no doubt a maneuver that Trump has noted for his own playbook.
Bloomberg, who is nominally a Republican (it depends on the day of the week), is now being floated again as an alternative candidate, along with Ryan, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and a few other luminaries of similar wattage. The idea is not necessarily to win, but to preserve the ideological purity of the Party from Trump’s profane hands, and to prevent a down-ticket disaster. The problem, as Republican elders see it, is not only that the Party will split over this strategy, but that its electoral base will be irretrievably shattered.
This is a false concern, however, because that shattering has already occurred. The Reagan Democrats who left the Democratic Party fold in the 1980s have wandered off the reservation again. They’re supporting Trump, and they’ll accept no substitute. They’re not going to be charmed into backing the party of Wall Street again, not for the foreseeable future. Similarly, Trump has lured social conservatives and Evangelicals away from such former darlings as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz wasn’t able to keep them in the fold either. People who clip coupons for a living — I mean the Goldman Sachs, not the Walmart kind — aren’t going be enough to keep the Republican Party in business. Try as one may, an electoral base chiefly consisting of the 1% or even the 10% isn’t going to get you to a national majority of 50% + 1.
But that’s where the beauty of 2016 comes in, and why Hillary Clinton is such a godsend to the Republican Party.
A third-party candidate—who would really be only the unofficial candidate of the Republican establishment—doesn’t need to win the election to become president. He or she doesn’t even need to come in more than a distant third, as the breakaway Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond did in 1948, or George Wallace in 1968. The only thing necessary would be to win enough states to prevent either Trump or Clinton from getting 270 votes in the Electoral College. In a really close race, winning only three Electoral College votes—say, those of Rhode Island or Wyoming—would be enough to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where the Republican Party will, by all calculation, retain a comfortable majority. Thus, as a Republican Supreme Court elected George W. Bush president in 2000 by a 5-4 vote, a simple majority of the 438 members in the Lower House could elect the next president. It would even be more a democratic procedure: the Republicans in Congress, unlike Supreme Court justices, are actually elected by somebody, and they’d be 50 times more numerous than the infamous Five who gave us Bush. All the Republicans would have to do would be to hold ranks in the House, which would be Speaker Paul Ryan’s job. If Ryan himself were the “unofficial” Republican candidate, the House members would only have to vote for the man they chose for the third slot in the Constitutional pecking order to replace Barack Obama in the first one.
Of course, you might say that electing a president who won only one—or maybe three, or perhaps five—states would be seen as outrageous. But, that’s the way the Founding Fathers set it up for us. They weren’t big fans of democracy either. And who, really, will complain? A majority of voters don’t want Trump or Clinton, and they would likely breathe a sigh of relief to be spared either of them. The rump Republican victor would have four years to rebuild the Party’s base, or at least build one of his or possibly her own (just think: President Nikki Haley!).
If the Republican Party survives, in short, its neck will have been saved by its bête noire, Hillary Clinton. Of course, Hillary wouldn’t have been able to do it alone, not without the Democratic primary voters who turned their backs on the best chance they’ve had to renovate their own Party in 50 years,
So, which party is it exactly that is trying to commit suicide in 2016? Hard to tell.