Donald Trump is the ISIS of Republican presidential candidates

On the eve of Super Tuesday, I offer a brief observation
about Donald Trump. This isn’t, of course, the last word on Trump. I doubt
anyone will ever have the last word, and I am not a likely candidate to do so
in any case. But it isn’t even
my last
word. I’ve got designs on a series of short observations – more observations
than arguments – on a few topics, including possibly

  • The strange push-poll call I received, pumping
    Trump and offering me a free cruise
  • Trump and phronetic social science
  • Trump and the moral imagination
  • Trump and the concerns of the voters who favor
  • Trump and evangelicals
  • Trump and Twitter
  • And, if I’m feeling really creative, I might
    just cast Trump and the rest of the Republican field as characters in Cormac
    McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

I may or may not get around to all that, and it’s probably
best if I don’t. For now, though, I’ll offer the following observation:

Donald Trump is the ISIS of Republican candidates.
Let me explain. 

The Republican Party doesn’t want Donald Trump as its
presidential nominee. A
recent New York Times article
Alexander Burns, Maggie Haberman, and Jonathan Martin describes the disorder
and desperation that have descended upon the party as Trump continues to gather
momentum despite the best efforts of party elites. Republican strategist Karl
Rove has warned that Trump’s nomination would be “catastrophic” for the party. Mitt
Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and 2012 Republican presidential
nominee, has started trolling Trump on Twitter, saying that Trump is “scared”
to release tax returns to the public. Efforts to discredit and defeat Trump
show that even
if his success is in some ways a natural and entirely foreseeable consequence
of the party’s platform, ethos, and strategies over the past eight years
it is nevertheless an undesirable and unintended consequence.

According to some political
science research
, parties aren’t supposed to have these kinds of unintended
consequences or, rather, unintended candidates. Many believe that party
insiders – like Mr. Trump’s most vocal opponents – effectively determine
eventual nominees. But in Trump’s case, party insiders failed to weigh in early
enough to prevent him from gaining widespread support and now seemingly
unstoppable momentum. As Burns, Haberman, and Martin write, “Republicans have
ruefully acknowledged that they came to this dire pass in no small part because
of their own passivity. There were ample opportunities to battle Mr. Trump
earlier; more than one plan was drawn up
only to be rejected
” (emphasis added). The party squandered early
opportunities to weigh in heavily either against Trump or in favor of another
candidate. In
recent posts, political scientist Daniel Drezner has blamed political science
itself for this
lack of party initiative against Trump in the early going. Paradoxically, he
suggests, the party failed to weigh in precisely because it assumed Trump stood
no chance. Drezner speculates that the assumption that Trump stood no chance
was itself based upon the more or less illegible background assumption that the
party would weigh in heavily, which it did not. Of course, it’s also true that if party opinions matter
less this year, the Republican Party is partly to blame for years of
self-marginalizing cultivation of anti-establishment sentiments among its base
voters. But whatever the reasons for the lack of success on the part of party
insiders, that failure to weigh in with decisive force, especially in the early
going, has played a major role in Trump’s emergence as the likely Republican nominee.
Party elites chose a relatively hands-off approach, preferring to let a field
of more than fifteen candidates sort itself out. They may have wanted more of
an establishment candidate, but they got Trump.

Trump’s emergence from the Republican free-for-all – a
free-for-all that party insiders allowed – in some ways mirrors the emergence
of ISIS as the most formidable armed group in Syria. To be sure, the emergence
of ISIS cannot be fully explained by any single factor. Still, there is little
doubt that the reluctance of the United States and other actors to weigh in
with decisive force in the early going, whatever the reasons, allowed ISIS to
take territory, consolidate power, and gather momentum. The lack of strong
support for any particular alternative led, in part, to the emergence of a
force that has destabilized the entire region. ISIS began its campaign in
unruly areas of Syria and Iraq, but it has gone on to terrorize the world.

In U.S. presidential politics, and especially in the
Republican Party, Donald Trump is the destabilizing force that emerges from the
lack of vision, decisiveness, and heavy support for an alternative in the early
going. In other words, Trump is the ISIS of Republican presidential candidates.
For the time being, he’s just terrorized a few states and some party elites.
Unfortunately, he may just be getting started. Super Tuesday will tell.

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