There is only one way Donald Trump can win the Republican presidential nomination next year. It's something he's familiar with from his big business career. It's called a hostile takeover.
Trump’s supporters will have to beat the Republican Party establishment into submission. Wait a minute. Isn’t Trump the frontrunner for the Republican nomination? Yes. But he’s only got the support of a quarter of rank-and-file Republican voters. Nearly one-third of Republicans say they could not vote for Trump.
Trump is winning the Tea Party base of the GOP. They’re activist and they’re influential. But the Republican establishment looks at the Tea Party movement with deep suspicion. After all, outlandish Tea Party candidates kept the Republican Party from winning a Senate majority in 2010: Christine O’Donnell in Delaware (“I’m not a witch”), Sharron Angle in Nevada (unemployed Americans are “spoiled”), Ken Buck in Colorado (ban all abortions, including those for victims of rape and incest). Tea Party nominees cost Republicans two more Senate seats in 2012: Todd Akin in Missouri (“legitimate rape” cannot result in pregnancy) and Richard Mourdock in Indiana (pregnancy as a result of rape is “something God intended to happen”).
Trump has said more than his share of outrageous things: “Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud,” “Mexico is sending people who have lots of problems [including] drugs and being rapists,” Republican Senator John McCain is not a war hero (“I like people who weren’t captured, okay?”).
Trump horrifies the Republican Party establishment. Its business is to win elections and it knows he can’t get elected president. Polls show Trump doing worse than any other potential Republican nominee against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Nonetheless, Trump’s support among Tea Party conservatives has continued to grow. That’s because the Tea Party is at war, not just with Obama and the Democrats, but also with the Republican Party establishment – which they claim has betrayed the conservative cause for the sake of governing.
Conservatives have always nurtured a keen sense of betrayal. In the 1950s, senator Joseph McCarthy took on the Republican Party establishment for betraying the conservative cause. McCarthy saw communist infiltration in Washington. Trump just sees stupidity: “Our leaders are stupid, they are stupid people.” As opposed to himself: “‘I’m, like, a really smart person.”
Trump has several sources of support that could pay off for him in next year’s Republican primaries. One is Tea Party conservatives. Another is celebrity worshipers. They love Trump because he’s rich and famous. A third is angry anti-Washington populists. They like Trump because he’s not a politician. He says exactly what he thinks, consequences be damned. Like his attacks on illegal immigrants, which have deeply offended Latino voters and derailed Republican plans for outreach.
A coalition of Tea Party conservatives, celebrity followers and angry anti-Washington voters could flood the Republican primaries next year, assuming Trump doesn’t self-destruct before then. (Never a good bet.)
The coalition would include a lot of people who have never voted in Republican primaries before. They may not even be Republicans or conservatives. Just Trump followers – plus people who want to shake things up.
What could make the Trump coalition especially dangerous is that the Republican establishment doesn’t seem to have a strong contender. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is not exactly catching fire on the campaign trail. Trump is out-polling Bush nearly two to one for the Republican nomination. Bush has a poor brand name – especially among conservatives who hated his father and lost confidence in his brother. Even the Republican establishment is dismayed by Bush’s repeated stumbles. Like when he could not seem to decide whether he supported the Iraq invasion or whether the federal government spends too much money on “women’s health issues”.
For the Republican establishment to rally the party to stop Trump, it would have to be clear that Bush would beat Clinton and Trump would not. That’s not clear yet. But don’t Trump’s followers care about winning? Maybe not so much. They may care more about making a statement.
Trump’s people are not political professionals or committed Republican partisans. They may not believe it makes much difference whether Bush or Clinton gets elected. Both Bush and Clinton are deeply embedded in the political establishment.
If Trump’s hostile takeover looks like it’s going to succeed, it would split the Republican Party. A lot of Republican leaders would refuse to support him.
What if it looks like the Republican establishment is going to stop Trump and deny him the nomination? Trump refuses to rule out running for president as an independent. Would he be able to put together an organisation and get on the ballot in enough states to do that? He certainly has enough money to do it. “I’m really rich,” he said, setting his personal fortune at $10 billion. But state ballot rules are complicated. He would have to start organising soon.
Suppose Trump gets the Republican nomination. Or suppose he runs as an independent. Either way, the 2016 Republican nomination wouldn’t be worth anything.
Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University in Virginia.