The kamikaze conservatives
I can't help feeling a little bad for the intellectuals of the conservative movement.
Sure, they helped set the stage for the rise of Donald Trump by encouraging Republican politicians and media personalities to continually flatter the party's base, denigrate establishments of all kinds, and use a rhetoric of populism to sell policies that primarily benefit the rich. But it worked so well for so long! How could they have possibly known that the base would finally, after roughly 36 years of playing along with the game, decide to call their bluff?
Now the intellectuals find themselves in a new and unsettling situation. How should they respond to Trump's voter-fueled takeover of the Republican Party? Unlike GOP politicians, who are sharply divided on the question, right-of-center writers and pundits are close to unanimous in rejecting the presumptive nominee. Where they show ambivalence is in how best to express their dissatisfaction.
Some, like Robert Kagan and P.J. O'Rourke, have bolted the party and (however reluctantly) come out in favor of the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Plenty of others have expressed an intention to refrain from voting at all.
And then there are the kamikaze conservatives — Bill Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot, and others on the neocon right — who have been loudly calling on someone, anyone to mount a third-party challenge to Trump. (The someones have included, so far, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, retired Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis.)
These conservative writers genuinely detest Trump, and conservatives are often more inclined than liberals to swoon at grand (and even futile) displays of courage in defense of principle. Still, I'm not sure this group has really thought through how much damage a third-party bid would do to the conservative movement.
To begin with, there is basically zero chance of a third-party challenger to Trump winning the general election. As for the Hail Mary pass of hoping that the challenger merely wins enough states to deny both major-party candidates the 270 electoral votes required to win, and thus throws the election to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives — that's almost equally unlikely. As Jonathan Chait has helpfully explained for those who skipped a few too many days of Intro to American Government in college, a right-of-center challenge to a right-of-center presidential candidate produces a divided right side of the political spectrum, ensuring that the single left-of-center candidate (presumably Hillary Clinton) receives a much larger share of the votes than she otherwise would have.
If Bill Kristol and his friends persuade a conservative to run against Trump, they will guarantee the election of a Democrat in November.
Is it conceivable they don't understand this? Given how many conservative pundits convinced themselves that Ted Cruz had a serious shot at prevailing over Trump at the Cleveland convention despite trailing the billionaire businessman by roughly four million votes, I suppose it's possible.
But such miscalculations are less a product of political ignorance than an expression of the stunning capacity of wishful thinking to distort the judgment of otherwise thoughtful people.
I actually suspect Kristol and Co. believe that by encouraging an act of principled insubordination against Trump, they will be increasing their own chances of regaining control of the GOP once the failed Trump campaign has reduced the party to rubble.
But this is equally delusional.
As Trump himself put it on ABC's This Week on Sunday, "This is called the Republican Party. It's not called the Conservative Party." He's right. The conservative movement first grabbed (momentary) control of the party with the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. It then rose to full power with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and consolidated it in 1984. Ever since then — and despite occasional populist challenges from the likes of Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson — the GOP and the conservative movement have been largely synonymous.
Now that synthesis is coming to an end.
If Trump's success in the primaries has demonstrated anything, it is that the conservative movement is electorally weak and fading (at least at the presidential level). More than a dozen Republicans ran for the White House this year, each of them seeking to demonstrate his or her conservative bona fides — and yet it was Trump who prevailed, all the while making a mockery of movement conservatism and its failures in both economic and foreign policy.
How can that movement's leading intellectuals seriously think their ideas will be more popular with voters after those intellectuals torpedo the voters' preferred candidate?
By encouraging a kamikaze mission against the party's nominee for president, these movement conservatives will only end up hastening their own demise. Instead of accepting their perhaps temporary status as junior partners in the party (limiting themselves to writing critically about the 2016 election while personally sitting it out), or seeking to carve out a new home and place of influence in the Democratic Party, they would instantaneously transform themselves into martyrs for the conservative movement and outright exiles from (and traitors to) the GOP.
If these conservatives consider Trump a threat to the country grave enough to warrant such a sacrifice, then by all means they should try to recruit someone to take him down. But they should do so with their eyes open. They might very well succeed in ensuring that the country (and the world) are spared the trauma of a Trump presidency.
But they would also ensure the definitive defeat of the conservative movement.