This op-ed was originally published at Medium on January 6, 2016.
It’s no secret that many Republican insiders are scared that Donald Trump may actually win the nomination for president. They view the billionaire real estate mogul with a proclivity for making politically incorrect statements as a disaster for the party in a general election.
For months, Republican-aligned pundits have said, “Trump won’t be the nominee.” Yet, few of the attacks against Trump, who holds significant leads in most early primary states, have done any real damage to his campaign. In fact, his support has intensified and grown, leaving the pundit class scratching their heads.
Trump’s rise in the polls may seem difficult to grasp. After all, he has said and done things that are severely out-of-step with conservative principles, such as using eminent domain to take private property for private purposes, past support for single-payer health care, and contributions to Democratic congressional campaigns.
Despite a record that is a generally an affront to conservatism — one that may have icons like William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk spinning in their graves — Trump has garnered support because he has tailored his message to appeal directly to the GOP’s conservative base. The reason it’s resonating is because the Republican establishment has long taken advantage of conservative activists.
The conflict between conservatives and the Republican establishment had been building up for some time. President George W. Bush’s brand of “compassionate conservatism” turned out to be a budget-buster. For many, the final two years of his administration, as bailouts and other interventions in the economy became further ingrained in the status quo, were when the tensions began boiling over.
More recently, uninspiring presidential nominees, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and milquetoast congressional leaders, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, further pushed away conservatives. The lack of a bold vision based on conservative reforms and prominent figures to effectively articulate such a message are among the biggest sources of the conservative grassroots’ frustration.
At the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, party bosses went to extraordinary lengths to diminish the influence of grassroots conservative and libertarian-leaning activists. The result was rule changes that concentrated power in the establishment’s hands, much to the chagrin of Republicans of all stripes.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before in living memory at a Republican National Convention,” wrote RNC Committeeman Morton Blackwell in a post-mortem of the convention. Blackwell was one of the most prominent committee members to fight the rule changes, which allowed this party power grab to happen.
There’s some concern that the Republican establishment may be circling the wagons yet again. At a recent dinner hosted by Reince Priebus, top Republicans dined and whined about the prospects of no candidate reaching the number of delegates needed to secure the GOP’s presidential nomination.
According to the Washington Post, “several longtime Republican power brokers” openly discussed thwarting Trump’s bid for the GOP presidential nomination if such a scenario presented itself. The Republican National Committee, of course, downplayed the report. Nevertheless, it highlights the unease in the Republican establishment.
The concern hasn’t subsided. It surfaced again at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. “The possibility of a contested convention — however remote — was expected to be raised at a Rules Committee meeting on Thursday,” Politico reported. “RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, one senior party official said, has begun considering a variety of scenarios, such as what would happen if no candidate were to win a majority of the primary vote in eight states — one of the requirements a nominee must meet.”
Of course, Republicans should be prepared for the possibility that no candidate will have a majority of delegates before the convention. But preparing for such a scenario and avoiding the perception that the establishment is attempting to undermine the voices of millions of caucus and primary voters is a difficult line to toe.
A power grab on this scale — real or perceived — could backfire and further drive already disenfranchised conservatives into the waiting arms of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, like Donald Trump, who has the money and resources to launch a formidable independent bid for the White House.
The situation in which Republicans find themselves is a disaster in the making. If anything, Trump’s rise should cause the Republican establishment to listen to the conservative grassroots. Pretending like conservatives don’t exist doesn’t negate their woes but only further increases them.