The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Republican party is running scared from Donald Trump

Even after presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration, there's not much the Republican establishment can do about him. (Video: Tom LeGro/The Washington Post, Photo: Mic Smith/The Washington Post)

Almost 24 hours after Donald Trump issued a proposal to ban Muslims from coming into the United States, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus responded. "I don't agree," he told the Washington Examiner. "We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values. That's as far as I'm going to go."

Not exactly a stirring condemnation of a proposal that has been described — by Republicans — as fascist and unconstitutional. Why? Simple.  Priebus — and the rest of the Republican party establishment — are deathly afraid of Trump running a third party presidential bid next fall. And for good reason: Such a candidacy by Trump would almost certainly hand the White House to Hillary Clinton.

No one is more aware of the power Trump holds over the party then Trump himself. Witness this tweet Tuesday afternoon.

The poll Trump refers to comes from USA Today and Suffolk University, which releases its results this afternoon. The data shows that almost seven in ten Trump supporters would back him if he ran as an independent while just 18 percent said they would not do that.

What the data affirms is that Trump has built a following composed, primarily, of people who think of themselves as Trump backers first and Republicans second.  Their loyalty is to The Donald, not to Priebus or any of the other apparatchiks within the GOP party infrastructure. That means that if Trump goes, they go.

Combine that loyalty to Trump with his massive checkbook — he is, by any estimate, a billionaire — and you have a major problem for Republicans. In mid-July, The Post and ABC News asked some general election ballot questions, including one with Trump as a third party candidate. Hillary Clinton took 50 percent to 44 percent for Jeb Bush in a head to head. In a three-way race, Clinton received 47 percent to 29 percent for Bush and 19 percent for Trump. So yeah.

But wait, you say. What about that formal ceremony Trump had at Trump Tower after meeting with Priebus where he signed a document pledging that he wouldn't run for president as a third party candidate? As I wrote at the time, that document meant (and means) absolutely nothing. Do you really believe that Trump, who has built his political success on a willingness to blow out members of his party and who, as recently as a few years ago, was barely a Republican at all, is going to let some sheet of paper get in the way of him doing what he wants to do?  The answer is no.

Since that great signing ceremony, Trump has done little to indicate that he wouldn't bolt the party if he felt ill treated. (Yes, that is a very subjective measure, and yes, everyone thinks Trump will define it however he wants.) Say what you will about Trump, but he is a man who understands leverage. And he has all of it right now.

Hence Priebus playing generally nice with Trump rather than blasting him for a proposal that, without question, further damages the Republican brand and creates problems for GOP candidates up and down the ballot.

I get it. And it's probably the smartest — and only — way for Priebus to deal with Trump. But I also think that Trump will always do what is in Trump's best interest — no matter what anyone else says and does. That means that if Trump decides he could get lots of attention if he ran as a third party candidate, he would do it in a second.  How nice (or not) Priebus had been to him would/will be immaterial in that calculation.

Trump has the Republican party running scared. He knows it — and loves it.