Opinion writer

The much-ballyhooed “loyalty pledge” that the Republican National Committee demanded that Donald Trump sign was supposed to “box in” Trump, leaving him no way of running as a third party candidate if he fails to win the GOP nominee.

Trump announced today that he signed the pledge. Surely that is not an entirely insignificant get for Republican leaders — it makes it perhaps marginally less likely that Trump will launch a third party bid.

But it would not be at all surprising if GOP primary voters see this in strikingly different terms than GOP leaders intended. They may think Trump bent the GOP establishment to his will, rather than the other way around.

Here’s what Trump said today:

“The best way for the Republicans to win is if I win the nomination and go directly against whoever they happen to put up. And for that reason, I have signed the pledge,” Trump said, holding up the paper. “So I will be totally pledging my allegiance to the Republican Party and for the conservative principles for which it stands.”

He added: “We will go out and fight hard, and we will win.”…

“The RNC has been absolutely terrific over the last two month period and as you know, that’s what I’ve wanted,” Trump said. “I don’t want to be treated any differently.”

Asked what he got in return for signing the paper, Trump responded: “assurance that I will be treated fairly.”

Look how that’s playing on Fox News:


The storyline is now that Trump and the GOP establishment have reached an understanding, after GOP leaders agreed to stop treating him unfairly. As he put it today, the GOP has been “terrific” to Trump (he does love that word), because he insisted on that treatment. He — not Republican leaders — set the agenda. Even if the notion that Trump was ever treated unfairly is absurd, is there any reason to doubt that a whole lot of GOP primary voters — particularly Trump’s supporters — will be very receptive to this interpretation of what happened?

We keep hearing that Trump’s surge is rooted in the fact that a lot of Republican voters are very angry with GOP leaders, because they’re feckless and ineffective, and think Trump would bang heads together and accomplish what they can’t or won’t. Surely a lot of these voters are also happy to believe that said feckless and ineffective GOP leaders want Trump to disappear not because he risks destroying the GOP brand among Latinos, but because he’d disrupt their cozy Washington arrangement in which they aren’t willing to do what it takes to stop Obama because it would shake things up too much. That’s why they’ve been treating Trump unfairly! By threatening a third party candidacy, Trump forced their hand. GOP leaders have now agreed to treat him fairly.

As a special bonus, Trump also gets to define what “fairly” means. If at any time in coming weeks and months, Trump even so much as hints that Republicans are treating him unfairly, mass panic will again set in, without anyone even knowing by what objective metric “fair treatment of Trump” can even be gauged.

Not only that, but this high profile gesture of detente between Trump and GOP leaders — in which he has pledged full “allegiance” to the GOP and conservative principles — could disarm attacks on his previous positions that are designed to sow doubt about his commitment to the Republican cause.

Okay, I don’t know for sure if that’s how GOP primary voters will read all of this. But Trump has proven astoundingly adept at growing the ranks of his supporters by broadcasting coded messages of all kinds — messages that have hit their marks, and then some. This might not prove to be an exception.