A Line in the Sand
How Texas can keep Donald Trump out of the White House.
This year’s holiday season has probably, for too many Americans, been marred by the Dickensian caricature known as Donald Trump. In addition to the fact that he remains the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, he did his best to disturb the peace on Christmas. Taking to Twitter, he angrily denounced those who doubt whether he is qualified to lead the free world, or even capable of beating Hillary Clinton in the general election. As evidence, he noted that the most recent CNN/ORC poll showed him leading the Republican field, with nearly twice as much support as the next candidate, Ted Cruz.
The CNN/ORC poll also showed him losing the general election to Hillary Clinton, meaning that the long-suffering Trump was, in this case, being treated very unfairly by the poll that he had cherry-picked specifically to serve his interests. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another best-seller in his future: The Art of the Grievance. But it increasingly seems inevitable that Cruz will outfox him in Iowa, and I doubt Trump has the emotional resilience to carry on if he emerges from the caucus as an official, proven loser.
Many Republicans, however, think Trump will endure, and possibly even win the nomination. As Jeff Greenfield wrote last week, at Politico Magazine, this prospect has them nervously talking about what they would do in the event Trump secures the nomination, which would leave “significant slices of the party unwilling or unable to accept the outcome”:
Whether he’s seen as an ideological heretic for his views on trade, taxes and government power or as a demagogue whose clownish bluster and casual bigotry make him temperamentally unfit for office, the odds on massive defections are very high.
Some Republican operatives, Greenfield reports, are considering a particularly dramatic response. Trump himself has indicated, at several points, that he might run as a third-party candidate if the Republican Party denies him the nomination. Those threats have some resonance, because an independent Trump wouldn’t have to skim off many Republican voters to effectively doom the GOP nominee in the general. But the same would be true if Trump himself is the nominee. The only difference between the two scenarios is that Trump is self-obsessed, prone to snits and grudges, and has never shown the slightest concern for how his histrionics might affect other people. By contrast, someone like Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney would pause to consider the potential consequences of their actions. A third-party run would likely guarantee Clinton’s election, and a coordinated defection among party insiders might lead to the end of the Republican Party as we know it.
But if Trump somehow becomes the Republican nominee, I think Republicans need to take the risk. By doing so they might destroy their party, but Trump might destroy the country. Any party that would seriously nominate such a person for president is a party that should be put out to pasture, if not sent straight to the glue factory. Since June, Trump has caused more harm than most politicians manage in a lifetime. And if he had the power of the presidency? A few sweet nothings from Vladimir Putin and Trump would be tripping all over himself to give Alaska back to Russia.
Trump’s sheer awfulness has already made it virtually impossible for me to make fun of Obama. It surely casts the relative risks of a Clinton presidency in a different light. She likely wouldn’t repeal Obamacare, but she can hardly make it worse.
And the national GOP running a third-party candidate would show that some conservatives, at least, are willing to put the welfare of the country above party; that would be a worthwhile message and a first step toward renewal. With that said, getting an independent candidate on the ballot in fifty states would be logistically difficult, especially if the Republican Party infrastructure is theoretically committed to another candidate. So here’s something disaffected American conservatives might want to consider. If the goal of a third-party campaign is to keep an eminent domain enthusiast from seizing the White House, there’s no need to run in all fifty states: No Republican can win the presidency without Texas.
At first glance, the point may seem irrelevant, because Democrats apparently can’t win Texas. Last time they tried, in 2014, they ended up in an even deeper hole. It’s obviously ridiculous to suggest that Clinton could pick up a state four years after Romney carried it, 57-41. It’s aggressively ridiculous to suggest that Republicans would help her do it, in a state so ferociously conservative that a quasi-endorsement from Ted Cruz is enough to tip the scales in favor of the attorney general candidate who already admitted to committing a crime. But those details don’t really matter given that America’s vast right-wing conspiracy is considering whether to help Clinton win the presidency. The horse has left the barn.
At this ridiculous moment in American politics, the thing that reliably thwarts Democrats in Texas is exactly what creates an opening. The state has the country’s largest population of Republicans. We are absolutely crawling with conservatives. They come in all shapes and sizes, from all tribes and factions. And our Republicans lead the nation when it comes to intraparty kneecappings. The saboteurs we’ve seen in recent years, for the most part, have been seeking some kind of advantage—winning the primary, or racking up scorecard points. Such considerations wouldn’t apply in this scenario; an independent conservative running in one state wouldn’t even have a theoretical chance of winning the presidency. But other motives are legion.
The concerns that have national Republicans grumbling about defection obviously apply in Texas, too. They may even resonate more strongly here: it’s depressing how many Texas conservatives have swooned for Trump, but the state party nonetheless includes a lot of people who have been fighting for conservative causes and principles for years, and who have been watching self-proclaimed “true conservatives” discredit their party and dismiss their work, even before Trump lurched onto the scene. In addition to that, he has attacked a lot of his fellow Republicans this year, thanks to his unusually ecumenical approach to the politics of grievance. Many of them, as it happens, have ties to Texas. Trump has jeered at Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in state history. He’s gone after Land Commissioner George P. Bush’s dad. He can only win the nomination by thwarting Ted Cruz, whose Texas campaign is being chaired by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Baylor grad Rand Paul, who has a lot of support among the liberty lovers in the Texas Lege. A conservative who launches an independent bid for Texas’s votes may not get many endorsements from the state’s Republican leaders. But I bet a spoiler could count on a fair amount of quiet operational support.
And Texas could come up with a spoiler. In addition to our true patriots and eccentric rich people, I can think of two Texas conservatives who might actually do so out of principle. One, of course, is the aforementioned Perry. His 2016 campaign was widely dismissed without a hearing. But none of the Republicans who threw their hat in the ring showed more moral clarity about the issue at hand; he spoke out against Trump’s opening attack on unauthorized immigrants from Mexico, despite the obvious risk that he would pay a political price for defending such a popular scapegoat. And Perry, it’s worth keeping in mind, isn’t a born-and-raised Republican; he’s a conservative, and when he left the race, he warned that Trump was “a cancer” on his tribe.
The other option might be even more propitious, because if he ran as a spoiler, there would be no way for Trump’s sycophants to accuse him of sour grapes. Jerry Patterson, the former land commissioner, has never even toyed with the idea of running for president. This year, when he decided not to run for Railroad Commission, he issued a statement explaining that it would be awkward for him to run on a ticket potentially led by Trump, because he thinks the man is an idiot and is unwilling to pretend otherwise. Patterson, a Marine, surely has a sincere disdain for Trump, a draft dodger. He also would have no shortage of policy disagreements with Trump, which his core supporters would share. Patterson has longstanding commitments to gun rights and property rights, for example, which Trump seems unusually open to abridging. Patterson is one of the few Republicans who has already said in public—here at BurkaBlog, no less—that Republicans should skip the general election, or vote for an independent candidate, “even if Hillary wins as a result.” Our former land commissioner obviously remembers the Alamo. All Texans do. And if Trump is the Republican nominee in 2016, we should once again draw a line.