One possible approach is to unbind all delegates by eliminating the requirement that they vote for the candidate they are pledged to on the first ballot, thereby instantly creating a contested convention. But the Rules Committee could go even further than this, and simply exclude Trump from consideration entirely. It could do so by adopting a rule banning consideration of candidates who resort to threats of violence or condone violence by their supporters. Trump has threatened “riots” if he does not get his way at the convention and repeatedly condoned violence by his supporters against even nonviolent protestors. If there has not been a rule against such behavior in the past, it may be because, until this year, no one imagined that a candidate who condones violence in the political process could get so close to the nomination.
Blocking Trump at the convention is just one of several strategies that his opponents on the political right still have available to them, if they cannot stomach supporting Hillary Clinton (in my view, still a distinctly lesser evil than Trump). Other options include mounting a conservative third party challenge, or supporting the likely Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, who is far more in tune with constitutionalist, limited government principles than Trump is every likely to be, and far better qualified to be president. Such third-party candidates are unlikely to prevail. But they could deny Trump the White House, remind people that Trump is not the sole face of the right side of the US political spectrum, and provide a haven for those conservatives and libertarians who refuse to be complicit in Trump’s rise.
I. Why Blocking Trump is Consistent with Democratic Values.
The most obvious objection to blocking Trump is that it would be undemocratic to thwart the will of GOP primary voters. But, even aside from the fact that Trump has not won anywhere close to a majority of primary votes, using the rules to block Trump would enhance democracy far more than undermine it. At its heart, democracy is a system of majority rule, enabling the majority of the electorate to choose leaders they prefer. The ultimate electorate in this case are general election voters. And Trump is YUGELY unpopular with them. He would likely be the most unpopular major party nominee of modern times. Virtually any other remotely plausible Republican nominee would be more acceptable to the American electorate as a whole, and thus more likely to win the support of a true national majority, or at least offer them an option that a majority would consider to be a reasonable alternative to Hillary Clinton.
One of the reasons for giving party elites a say in the nomination process is to prevent the selection of a nominee who is utterly unacceptable to the general public; in some cases, elites are likely to be more sensitive to such considerations than primary voters are. This is pretty obviously one of those times.
Perhaps even more importantly, condoning and threatening political violence is itself a fundamental breach of democratic norms. Candidates who breach this norm, as Trump has, are a menace to democracy. Parties have every right to exclude them from the nomination process for that reason alone. That can help ensure that future nomination processes are free from threats of violence instigated by candidates egging on the worst elements among their supporters.
II. Why the Party Should Block Trump Even if it Really Would be Undemocratic to do so.
Trump cannot be trusted with the other powers of the presidency either. As Larry Summers asks, “[w]hat will a demagogue with a platform like Trump’s… do with control over the NSA, FBI and IRS?” We should not take even a small risk of letting Trump win the presidency. Extraordinary evils sometimes demand extraordinary remedies. And Trump’s nomination easily qualifies as such. Given the nature of his agenda and temperament, the fact that Trump won some 40% of the GOP primary vote (a historically low number for a GOP nominee), is not sufficient reason to give in to him.
The Founding Fathers viewed unconstrained democracy with great suspicion, and sought to establish a constitutional system that would keep it in check. They understood that the fact that large numbers of people support a great evil does not make it right. They knew that voters are often influenced by ignorance and illogic, which are among the major causes of support for Trump. Even if blocking Trump really would be undemocratic, sometimes being undemocratic is the right thing to do. The Republican Party is a private organization, and does not have to follow a popular vote process in choosing its nominee. Indeed, such was not the process throughout most of of American history, up to the McGovern-Fraser reforms of the 1970s.
Blocking Trump would undoubtedly alienate many of his supporters, quite possibly costing the Republican Party the general election in the fall. But supporting Trump is at least equally risky, given his immense unpopularity with general election voters. Association with Trump and his misogynistic rhetoric and racialist, xenophobic platform could tar the party for years to come, particularly in the eyes of more educated voters, women, the young, and racial and ethnic minorities. A Trump nomination would also alienate many of the GOP’s own longstanding supporters, especially those who care about protecting individual liberty, property rights, and constitutional limits on government power.
In truth, there is no easy way out for Republicans this year. Every available option is risky. But if you have to take a risk, it is better to do so by opposing a great evil than by getting in bed with it. As David Boaz of the Cato Institute puts it, “Republicans should be asking themselves, What will I say when my son asks, What did you do when Donald Trump knocked on the Republican party’s door, Daddy?” History will not look kindly on those who choose the path of appeasement instead of resistance.