The Dilemma Trump Presents for the GOP

The dominance of Donald Trump in the GOP primaries presents a dilemma for Republicans:  should the GOP be more afraid of a national convention like the one that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, or like the one in which the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey in 1968?

At the 1964 Presidential nominating convention, moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller was booed by the delegates for calling on them to repudiate the right wing of their own party.  Instead of rejecting their party’s more conservative wing, the convention nominated the candidate who was the favorite of the majority of people in the party:  Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.  (Full disclosure:  my father was an enthusiastic Goldwater supporter.)

In his acceptance speech, Goldwater elicited the cheers of his supporters when he said, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.  And let me remind you also that moderation in the defense of justice is no virtue.”  As part of “extremism in the defense of liberty,” Goldwater had called for greater willingness on the part of the US to use nuclear weapons, including against the Communists in Vietnam.  He had also quipped, in a line worthy of Trump, “Let’s lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin.”  Statements like this delighted those who would have voted for Goldwater anyway.  However, as conservative commentator Matt Lewis points out in his insightful new book, Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections, such pronouncements were “politically stupid,” because they “reinforced Johnson’s narrative that Goldwater was a crazy, fringe candidate.” The Democratic campaign of sitting President Lyndon Johnson parodied Goldwater’s slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” as “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”  And in an infamous but very effective television ad, a little girl innocently picking daisies was juxtaposed with a countdown and nuclear explosion, followed by Johnson intoning, “We must either love each other, or we must die.”  Although the GOP rank and file “won” by getting Goldwater as their nominee, Goldwater not only lost the general election by a landslide, he took a lot of the Republican party down with him.  The GOP lost seats in both houses of Congress, something that allowed Johnson and the Democrats to pass the Great Society legislation, a major liberal policy initiative.

The situation had changed a great deal by 1968.  President Johnson had gradually escalated US involvement in the Vietnam War.  However, when beloved (and generally moderate) TV news anchor Walter Cronkite editorialized for withdrawing from Vietnam, he spoke for many Americans, who were tired of what increasingly appeared to be a no-win war costing the lives of many US soldiers in a strategically insignificant country half a world away.  Consequently, Johnson decided not to run for re-election.  In the Democratic primaries, the most popular candidates were opponents of the Vietnam War, particularly Robert Kennedy, who was tragically assassinated, and Eugene McCarthy.  However, sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey had the support of the Democratic party establishment, and ended up getting the nomination through back room deals, even though he had not participated in a single primary.  Although the Democratic party establishment “won” by getting Humphrey as their nominee, the convention was a public relations nightmare, which almost guaranteed a victory by the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon.  Outside the convention in Chicago, anti-war demonstrators were beaten and tear-gassed in what came to be called a “police riot.”  (Full disclosure:  I had an uncle who was a police officer in Chicago.) Inside the convention itself, police and security personnel used strong-arm tactics to try to prevent anti-Humphrey delegates from speaking out.  The popular vote in the election was close, but Nixon won.

So what does all this have to do with the contemporary GOP primaries?  Donald Trump appears to be winning by a long shot, but it’s no secret that most Republican “insiders” aren’t happy about this.  Part of the resistance is a sincere belief on the part of establishment Republican figures like John McCain and Mitt Romney that Trump is unfit to be President.  However, there is also a serious concern among Republican strategists that Trump is so far to the right of the mainstream US electorate that he is guaranteed to lose in a general election.  Almost all recent polls show Clinton beating Trump.  (Sanders does even better against Trump in contemporary polls.)  “And let me remind you also that” this is before the Democratic campaign has had a chance to run a slew of attack ads against Trump.  Trump says plenty of things that will make devastating sound bites for his Democratic opponent, and videos of African-Americans and Latinos getting beaten and ejected from his rallies will provide powerful visuals.  Trump may also cost the GOP in disputed House and Senate seats, as Democratic candidates use Trump to discredit their Republican rivals.  Democrats need to win only five seats to regain control of the Senate, and more Senate Republicans are up for reelection in 2016 than Democrats.

However, there has been buzz that Republicans may have an alternative to this dire prospect.  If Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich can win just enough delegates between them to block Trump from getting the 1,237 needed to guarantee the nomination, the GOP would go to a brokered convention.  The nominee would then be selected via astute political maneuvering.  And if there were a majority of delegates at the convention who were anti-Trump, they would “only” have to agree which alternative to Trump to support.  However, Trump’s supporters would be livid that their candidate was denied the nomination despite capturing a plurality of the delegates.  The fights on the convention floor would be ugly, and would certainly alienate pro-Trump voters, who would probably not rally around the Republican nominee in the general election.  (The last time Republicans had a brokered convention was 1948, when they selected Thomas Dewey to run against Harry Truman, and we know how well that turned out for them.)  

In short, the 2016 GOP faces the dilemma of choosing between a candidate like Barry Goldwater in 1964 and a candidate like Hubert Humphrey in 1968. If Trump becomes the Republican nominee for President, his extreme views may guarantee a devastating loss for the GOP in the general elections.  But if the party establishment engineers a way to nominate someone other than Trump, it will probably divide and demoralize the party, again setting the GOP up for losing the general election.

Whichever alternative plays out, there will be protesters at the convention, and one of the issues will be the perceived racism of Trump’s campaign.  Given heightened tension following unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, it is not impossible that we will see riots at the Republican convention comparable to those at the 1968 Democratic convention.

Of course, as baseball great Yogi Berra sagaciously remarked, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  Donald Trump may have the delegates he needs to win the nomination on the first round of voting at the convention.  In addition, far-right parties have proven surprisingly strong in elections in other Western democracies, including the National Front in France, the True Finns Party of Finland, the Freedom Party of Austria, and the Golden Dawn Party of Greece, whose party symbol is shown below. (Remind you of anything?)

Perhaps the US is headed in this direction.

Full disclosure:  I have a bumper sticker that says “Anyone but Trump 2016.”  (Perhaps the bumper sticker is unnecessary, since the fact that my car is a Prius already makes it highly unlikely that I am a Trump supporter.)  So allow me to end on a partisan note.   Mr. Trump, if you do become President, true patriots will not stand by while you harass fellow Americans because of their race, sexual preference, or religion.  I am one of those patriots, because my father’s remains are in Arlington National Cemetery, right beside those of people like Staff Sergeant Ayman Abdelrahman Taha.

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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