WASHINGTON – In the first Republican debate, the klieg light that Donald Trump always carries around with him revealed four or five presidential candidates who, under the right circumstances, could beat Hillary Clinton. (Trump was not among them.) But there was also a moment that could predict the defeat of the GOP in 2016.
No, I’m not talking about Sen. Ted Cruz heaping praise on Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi – a military-backed ruler who jails journalists and has sentenced hundreds of opponents to death, or life in prison – as a model in dealing with Islamism. And no, I am not talking about Sen. Rand Paul’s smirk when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie raised the memory of 9/11 victims and their families.
The single most important event of the campaign so far was Trump raising his hand and refusing to commit to the eventual GOP nominee. At that moment, Republicans saw a likely dystopia. Trump has gotten a hint of what it might be like to stand on the only stage sufficient to his self-image. He thinks that a Trump-branded White House might actually be possible. It is not a view held by any serious political observer. That doesn’t matter. Some public figures – Harold Stassen, Eugene McCarthy – never recovered from the beatific vision, and spent the rest of their lives trying to recover it.
Trump will flame out. And since he is constitutionally incapable of accepting fault, he will blame the GOP for arson. As someone prone to conspiracy theories – on presidential birth records, vaccines and the scheming Mexican government – Trump is probably gathering string to prove a plot against him involving Megyn Kelly, the GOP establishment and the American Gynecological and Obstetrical Association. So he is keeping his third-party options open.
Trump’s actual performance in the debate demonstrated the real reason he will flame out. He called the other candidates “stupid” while failing to show mastery of a single policy issue. If you actually listen to him and try to follow his reasoning, the result is the intellectual version of a hangover.
Trump says that the campaign finance system is broken, which he knows because he took full advantage of it to buy politicians. So we are being told: You should elect me to protect you from people like me. The taking of graft, it seems, is deeply corrupt, while the giving of graft is just part of the game. The Trump syllogism: Every politician is bought by billionaires. Only billionaires can fund their own campaigns to avoid being bought. Therefore only billionaires can save us from billionaires.
Listen again: During the debate, he boasted of taking his investors – who are not “babies” but “killers” – for a ride, utilizing bankruptcy laws to his advantage, then divesting from Atlantic City before its economy crashed. This conveyed the image of a coldhearted, capitalist fat cat better than any of Mitt Romney’s verbal pratfalls. Trump plays monopoly with other people’s money, then mocks them as suckers for trusting him.
I realize there is little upside in analyzing Trump’s words. Those who support him are not looking for fancy language, or political correctness, or logical coherence, or human decency – all those establishment poses. They would rather have a candidate who accuses a woman of being hormonal, then repeats the charge that she is a “bimbo,” then tries to cover up the whole mess with a clumsy deception.
In a parliamentary system, Trump could launch his own party and win a few seats in the legislature (the Italians, after all, once elected a professionally active porn star to parliament). In America, the options are all or nothing. As a third-party candidate, Trump could easily tip a close election to Clinton. How do Republicans persuade him to choose nothing?
The best, maybe only, option is to ensure that his poll numbers deflate quickly, making it obvious that a lavish campaign for the Republican nomination and, later, the difficult task of getting on 50 ballots will end in humiliation. This will require establishment Republicans to stop playing political bank shots off his rise and make clear he has moved beyond the boundaries of serious and civil discourse. And it will require conservative populists to recognize that an alliance with Trump is effectively tying their movement to an anvil (the Red State summit disinvitation is a good start).
It is better to risk a short-term backlash than a predictable, long-term political disaster. So Trump’s inevitable self-marginalization must be given a push.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.