In a largely improvised speech brimming with Trumpitude, The Donald announced in June his official entry into the race for the GOP Presidential nomination. This time around, instead of just lingering around the fringes throwing garbage he might mount a serious run.
Trump’s chances of winning the nomination are as near to zero as it’s possible to get, but he doesn’t have to win to change this race. A more or less deliberate Trump campaign for the nomination could change the outcome of this race by introducing these three factors:
Candor – Yes, you read that right. To be clear, barely one out of every seven or eight statements Trump makes could fall within any reasonable definition of truthfulness. Mostly he’s just playing the part of the drunk uncle at the Thanksgiving table. When I use the term candor in reference to Trump I’m highlighting two things: 1) the manner in which he communicates his falsehoods, and 2) the disruptive character of his rare truthful statements.
Trump’s bluster is important because he has abandoned all the subtleties and evasions that have accompanied Republican appeals to the hard-right fringe over the past two decades. He’s not afraid to go full-racist. This creates a problem for the rest of the field. Weeks have passed since Trump’s incendiary, racist speech and the other Republican contenders have barely laid a glove on him. How can they? All they can do is fault his tone.
No one in this field can afford to come out and forcefully state that his comments on immigrants are wrong without opening up a devastating vulnerability to their right. Trump may be irresponsible and unelectable, but the other Republican contenders can’t confront his most offensive statements directly. That’s why he poses such a dangerous threat to the Republican brand.
To stem the damage he’s unleashed, someone is going to have to make a wider break with the party’s racist fringe. No one has yet showed the courage to make that move, because they know it would cost them the nomination. None of these candidates is willing to sacrifice their ambitions to rescue the GOP from itself.
When Trump veers into the world of facts he is even more unsettling. Inside the GOP at this moment, the only officially tolerated narratives are based on delusions. From science denial to supply-side economics to Benghazi, on almost every issue of consequence the party is presently unwilling to make even the minutest concessions to reality.
Into this bubble of denial wanders a reckless monster with more money than Mitt Romney. While most of Trump’s statements fit the usual Fox News pattern of fact-starved, bigoted blather, he occasionally lays a foul smelling nugget of verifiable reality on the family table. Like rhetorical croutons in Trump’s word-salad, these inconvenient truths are disruptive and difficult for the other candidates to swallow.
For example, in his announcement speech he mentioned the disastrous cost of the Iraq War in specifics. When the Club for Growth called for him to be banned from the Republican debates, he claimed they’d done it because he refused their request to donate $1m to the group. Then he produced a private letter from the organization that seems to support his claim. These are things that serious Republican political figures simply would not do.
As a random wealthy weirdo beholden to no one, Trump can say things no one else can. He is the Republican Party’s Id unshackled from any constraints.
Stretching the definition of “credibility” – Having Trump on a debate stage being treated like a Real Candidate™ transforms the standard for credibility in this race. Trump makes Ben Carson look like a levelheaded, qualified leadership figure. The biggest loser if Trump participates in the debates will be Jeb! and the biggest winner will be Ted Cruz.
Nothing recommends Jeb! to Republican voters more than his fairly convincing claim to be the only adult in the race. With Trump hogging the media spotlight, juvenile outbursts from characters like Santorum, Carson, Huckabee or Cruz are less likely to blow up into major stories.
The simple physics of the Overton Window means that Trump’s presence makes everyone else look relatively rational. Placed on a spectrum of craziness with Trump, Cruz and Bush suddenly sit pretty close together near the political center.
And under current standards Trump will have treated as though he were a Real Candidate™. No one in this field registers much more popularity or support than Donald Trump. Heck, outside the hardened party base few of these guys have higher favorability ratings than lung cancer. Trump has enough money and enough of a hardened goofball following to never dip below sixth or seventh in this race no matter what he or anyone else does.
An independent campaign – Here’s where it gets interesting. Trump has absolutely no shot at the GOP nomination. Every major constituency, every voting bloc, every organizational entity in the party will do anything necessary to stop him from winning. He is a major disruption, but not a candidate.
So what if he doesn’t quit when the GOP selects someone else?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but this may be the Republicans’ only shot at winning the White House in 2016. The logic of the Blue Wall boils down to this: thanks to demographic realities there is nothing that Republicans can do to win the White House. That’s not to say Republicans can’t win. Accidents, mishaps, and acts of God can occur. The Blue Wall logic says that none of the things Republicans are willing to do to win are enough to win. Winning will require some force majeure.
Since we can’t win by just nominating a solid candidate and running a great campaign, Republicans need some unforeseeable disruption, some strange event large enough to scramble the electoral math. Maybe there will be a war or a natural disaster. Or the Democrats’ will self-immolate by nominating the socialist Senator from Baja Canada. Or, someone like Trump might deliver what we need.
Granted, it would be reasonable to assume that an independent campaign by Trump will peel away more potential Republican voters than Democrats, but it’s hard to be certain. The man’s appeal is…let’s just say, eccentric. If he ran as an independent and he managed to get on the ballot in some of the larger states he might create enough static to make 2016 interesting.
Though possible, that outcome is unlikely. It’s far more likely that Trump will just shower the GOP primaries in bullshit, undermining whatever minimal credibility the winner hoped to gain. At some point in the process he’ll probably just wander away, distracted by a waiter or limo driver who needs a good reprimand. He’ll ruin the 2016 nominating campaign then move on to even bigger and better bankruptcies and trophy wives.
When the value of your brand dips below a certain critical mass, you start to invite speculation from junk dealers. The GOP nomination is about to get the Trump name plastered all over it in gold capital letters, then left to rot like some godforsaken Atlantic City hotel. And there’s nothing we can do about it, because no one can fire the Donald.
About the Author: Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area. He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years.
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