It’s been exactly a year since Donald Trump rode the escalator down to the lobby of Trump Tower to announce for president. We now see the spectacle of Trump holding the entire Republican party hostage and much of the party leadership struck with a form of Stockholm syndrome. That’s defined as a situation where hostages identify with and defend their captor — in this case, Trump.
Such hostage situations rarely end well. Ask Chris Christie, who insisted in March, after a news conference in which he stood stony-faced behind Trump, “For those who are concerned: I wasn’t being held hostage.” This week, Christie refuted allegations he had been turned into Trump’s “man servant,” sent out to fetch MacDonald’s meals for him.
There are practical reasons to believe that Trump is in danger of dragging the Republican party down to a historic defeat. The latest ABC News poll shows his negative rating hitting 70 percent with voters, higher than even the 55 percent negative score notched by Hillary Clinton. Even on terrorism, a CBS poll yesterday found that only a quarter of voters approved of Trump’s shambolic response to the Orlando massacre. The favorable response to Clinton on terrorism wasn’t great, either; but at 36 percent, it eclipses Trump’s numbers. In the same poll, Hillary took a six-point lead. Trump’s staffing and fundraising operations are still skeletal, and Ed Rollins, the co-chairman of a super PAC backing Trump, admitted last week that the boastful billionaire in reality doesn’t have the resources to fund his campaign.
Apologists for Trump say that there is still time for him to change and run a more serious operation. There is scant evidence that people at age 70 change that much. It’s more likely that Trump thinks the same tactics he used to win 13 million votes in the primaries can work as well in a general-election universe of 140 million people.
If Trump continues to display erratic behavior and his polls continue to soften, it would be irresponsible not to have a Plan B.
I hear two main arguments against a convention revolt. One is that any attempt to deny Trump the nomination would create a potentially violent backlash that would split the Republican party the way the Democrats were split at the Chicago convention of 1968. Of course, people forget that Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee that year, regained momentum and fell just 500,000 votes short of Richard Nixon in the November election, which was held just two months after the convention. And, the party is already split with Donald Trump as the potential nominee. Many Republicans will probably skip voting for the top of the ticket if Trump is the nominee, or they might even vote for Hillary Clinton. “Trump is building up hostility, shedding prospective supporters, and alienating — or worse, frightening — entire voter groups at a stunning rate,” GOP strategist Ed Rogers wrote Tuesday in the Washington Post.
Nor does an effort to derail Trump before he secures the nomination have to involve what Hugh Hewitt, writing yesterday in the Washington Post, dismissed as “last-minute rules changes and tricky procedural maneuvers.” Curly Haugland, a member of both the Republican National Committee and the convention’s Rules Committee, has co-authored with Sean Parnell a persuasive mini-book, Unbound: The Conscience of a Republican Delegate, to make the case that delegates to the GOP convention are free to vote their conscience and have been at every convention, save for the 1976 fight between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. (The book is available free as a pdf at the Citizens in Charge website.)
Yet any attempt to bind delegates “would have to be adopted by a vote of the RNC Rules Committee in Cleveland before it even applied to this year’s delegates,” as my NRO colleague David French points out. He adds: “Yet even if that happened, an abstaining or dissenting delegate could not be counted as supporting any other candidate for president.” A group of Trump delegates who are worried that Obama IRS’s will leak damaging details of Trump’s tax returns — as the IRS did (illegally) in 2012 with some of Mitt Romney tax info — are considering writing a letter to Trump asking him to release his tax returns before the convention as a matter of due diligence. If he doesn’t, they — along with alternates – might decide to abstain from voting on the first ballot.
Of course, the prospect of blocking Trump’s nomination is remote unless we see a further meltdown of the candidate in the next month — a distinct possibility. Far stranger things have happened in his election year. “All that is required to stop Trump is courage,” a leading Republican told me.
So far, that courage is not much in evidence. Hugh Hewitt, the influential talk-show host who last week endorsed blocking Trump at the convention, has backed off now. Yesterday he wrote a Washington Post essay with the headline “Clinton’s the Real Risk. If We Want to Stop Her, We Can’t Dump Trump.” In it, he argued:
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) want no part of a coup, so there won’t be one. . . . Despite reservations, Ryan, McConnell, and other have judged the cost of trying to make a change at the top of the GOP ticket to be higher than the cost of betting that Trump will ultimately see that his path to the White House is a turn to big themes — not small arguments and inflammatory rhetoric.
Of course, that wasn’t the stance that either Ryan or McConnell took in 2012, after Congressman Todd Akin, the GOP nominee in a Senate race in Missouri, outrageously claimed that a pregnancy rarely occurred as a result of what he called “legitimate rape.” Although Akin quickly clarified his remarks and apologized, Ryan called him to urge that the congressman step down as the party’s nominee. And McConnell issued a statement saying that Akin’s single comment on rape was unforgivable. “When the future of our country is at stake, sorry is not sufficient,” McConnell wrote. “To continue serving his country in the honorable way he has served throughout his career, it is time for Congressman Akin to step aside.” Akin refused and went down to a landslide defeat.
Ryan and McConnell clearly don’t view the many outrageous statements of Donald Trump and the single statement by Todd Akin as morally or political equivalent. That alone is proof that Trump is holding the GOP’s leaders hostage and that they are all suffering from Stockholm syndrome, hoping their kidnapper will be merciful. Good luck with all that.
— John Fund is NRO’s national-affairs correspondent.