Politics & Policy

History Shows That Trump Is Perfectly Willing to Play the Spoiler

(Mark Wilson/Getty)

Las Vegas — Donald Trump claims he isn’t interested in running as a spoiler third-party candidate in 2016 if he fails to win the GOP nomination.

But he said much the same thing in 1999, until he rushed to Ross Perot’s rump Reform party and announced he would run as a third-party candidate. Trump, whose middle name should be “Mercurial,” later dropped out, suddenly becoming a Democrat out of antipathy to George W. Bush. (Trump remained a Democrat until well into Barack Obama’s first year as president in 2009.)

Now Trump is roiling political waters as a GOP candidate for president. He is set to speak on Saturday at Freedom Fest, a gathering of 2,000 free-market enthusiasts meeting in Las Vegas. Not everyone is happy with his presence. Brian Doherty of the libertarian magazine Reason says his “bona fides vis a vis freedom include loving (and practicing) eminent domain, hating free immigration, being pro-tariff and pro-war and believing Social Security and Medicare are secure and should be inviolate. (He has been good on the drug war in the past.)”

Several other attendees also worry that Trump is egging on the GOP establishment to treat him so badly that he will have an excuse to run against it again in 2016. “The base is mad at the GOP leadership in Congress, worried conservative issues are getting ignored in the campaign, and fed up with political correctness,” Floyd Brown, president of the conservative Western Center for Journalism, told me. “If he moved to a third-party candidacy, many of his followers would be there with him.”

RELATED: Trump Is Bad for the GOP

That, of course, is what happened in 1992. Then another eccentric billionaire, Ross Perot, who like Trump had issues with the Bush family and the GOP establishment, stayed in the race as a self-financed third-party candidate and was included in the presidential debates.

Trump is well aware of the parallel. He told Byron York of the Washington Examiner this week, “I think every single vote that went to Ross Perot came from [George H. W.] Bush. Virtually every one of his 19 percentage points came from the Republicans. If Ross Perot didn’t run, you have never heard of Bill Clinton.”

Trump told Fox News this week, “I have many people that have asked me to go independent, and I think I would do very well if I went independent, but that’s not my thinking. My thinking is to run as a Republican.” But he also refused this week to rule out running as a third-party candidate. He told the Examiner he’s “not thinking” about a third-party bid now solely because he is doing well as a Republican and he thinks he represents the best chance to beat Hillary Clinton.

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But curiously, Trump has been very sparing in his criticism of Hillary Clinton. His most pointed jab came only this week after Clinton attacked his immigration comments. Trump responded the next day by calling her “the worst secretary of state in the history of our nation. Why would she be a good president? I think she would be a terrible president.”

But for many years Trump has been far more positive about Clinton. Hillary Clinton attended Trump’s 2005 wedding (and her husband Bill attended the wedding reception), and he has showered her Senate campaigns with contributions on four separate occasions. In 2012, after Clinton had been secretary of state for over three years, he told Fox News that she was a “terrific woman.”

Curiously, Trump has been very sparing in his criticism of Hillary Clinton.

“I am biased because I have known her for years,” he added. “I live in New York. She lives in New York. I really like her and her husband both a lot. I think she really works hard and I think she does a good job.”

As MSNBC noted, a Trump spokesman “did not cite Benghazi or any other reason for his apparent change of heart. “Hillary Clinton was the worst secretary of state in the history of the United States,” the spokesman repeated. “On top of that, she is extremely bad on illegal immigration.”

Last month, after Trump’s bizarre announcement comments, I put my tongue in cheek and asked if the modern P. T. Barnum of business was perhaps working as a double agent for the Left by making his rhetoric a media centerpiece of the GOP presidential race.

RELATED: Donald Trump: Not Telling It Like It Is

Some took me too seriously. The left-wing Salon.com called my column “asinine” and “bizarre.”

But since then, events have unfolded to make a Trump third-party bid — which would probably allow Hillary Clinton to repeat Bill’s feat of winning the presidency with a minority of the vote — only more likely. Despite their recent sparring session, I suspect that Trump and his businesses could survive a Hillary Clinton presidency quite nicely.

#related#Rather than first admitting that Trump has a point about the egregious failure of U.S. officials to deport known illegal-alien criminals, GOP candidates have rushed to personally make him the issue by denouncing him. Nothing is more likely to give Donald Trump the grievance quotient he needs to run a third-party race than to have the GOP establishment belittle him and make light of the issues he raises. Even people here at the Las Vegas FreedomFest who disagree with Trump are angry that Republicans seem to find being politically correct about Trump more important than discussing sanctuary cities.

Donald Trump has been called by columnist Charles Krauthammer a “rodeo clown,” but in reality Trump is more like the bucking bronco in a rodeo. Trump is a smart, canny operator who looks after his own interests. The GOP should worry that they seem to have no effective strategy to corral the bronco and indeed may be providing him an opening to bust up their joint.

National Review’s Neal Freeman has an excellent idea to limit the potential Trump damage. “Ask him now if he will commit to supporting the nominee of the party whose leadership he seeks. If he won’t commit, kick him off the debate stage.” No employer would keep someone on who didn’t have the best interests of the company at heart, so that potential “You’re fired” message is one Donald Trump would understand, even if he didn’t agree with it.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.

 

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