As Donald Trump attempts to clamber to the Republican nomination over a still-divided opposition, there will be a lot of talk about how all these rules and quirks and complexities are just a way for insiders to steal the nomination away from him, in a kind of establishment coup against his otherwise inevitable victory.
We can expect to hear this case from Trump’s growing host of thralls and acolytes. (Ben Carson, come on down!) But we will also hear it from the officially neutral press, where there will be much brow-furrowed concern over the perils of party resistance to Trump’s progress, the “bad optics” of denying him the nomination if he arrives at the convention with the most delegates, the backlash sure to come if his uprising is somehow, well, trumped by the party apparatus.
Americans speak and think in the language of democracy, and so these arguments will find an audience, including among party leaders and delegates themselves.
But they cut against the deeper wisdom of the American political tradition. The less-than-democratic side of party nominations is a virtue of our system, not a flaw, and it has often been a necessary check on the passions (Trumpian or otherwise) that mass democracy constantly threatens to unleash.
That check has weakened with the decline of machines, bosses and smoke-filled rooms. But in many ways it remains very much in force — confronting would-be demagogues with complicated ballot requirements, insisting that a potential Coriolanus or a Sulla count delegates in Guam and South Dakota, asking men who aspire to awesome power to submit to the veto of state chairmen and local newspapers, the town meeting and the caucus hall.
The weird rigors of this process have not always protected the parties from politically disastrous nominees, like Barry Goldwater or George McGovern. But Goldwater and McGovern were both men of principle and experience and civic virtue, leading factions that had not yet come to full maturity. This made them political losers; it did not make them demagogues.
Trump, though, is cut from a very different cloth. He’s an authoritarian, not an ideologue, and his antecedents aren’t Goldwater or McGovern; they’re figures like George Wallace and Huey Long, with a side of the fictional Buzz Windrip from Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here.” No modern political party has nominated a candidate like this; no serious political party ever should.
Because such figures speak — as Wallace did, and Long, and Ross Perot, and others — to real grievances, the process of dealing with them is necessarily painful, and often involves a third-party bid and a difficult reckoning thereafter. Trump would be no exception: Denying him the nomination would indeed be an ugly exercise, one that would weaken or crush the party’s general election chances, and leave the G.O.P. with a long hard climb back up to unity and health.
But if that exercise is painful, it’s also the correct path to choose. A man so transparently unfit for office should not be placed before the American people as a candidate for president under any kind of imprimatur save his own. And there is no point in even having a party apparatus, no point in all those chairmen and state conventions and delegate rosters, if they cannot be mobilized to prevent 35 percent of the Republican primary electorate from imposing a Trump nomination on the party.
What Trump has demonstrated is that in our present cultural environment, and in the Republican Party’s present state of bankruptcy, the first lines of defense against a demagogue no longer hold. Because he’s loud and rich and famous, because he’s run his campaign like a reality TV show, because he’s horribly compelling and, yes, sometimes even right, Trump has come this far without many endorsements or institutional support, without much in the way of a normal organization, clearing hurdle after hurdle where people expected him to fall.
But the party’s convention rules, in all their anachronistic, undemocratic and highly-negotiable intricacy, are also a line of defense, also a hurdle, also a place where a man unfit for office can be turned aside.
So in Cleveland this summer, the men and women of the Republican Party may face a straightforward choice: Betray the large minority of Republicans who cast their votes for Trump, or betray their obligations to their country.
For a party proud of its patriotism, the choice should not be hard.
Author: Ross Douthat