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How Trump could sabotage the GOP

Then-President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks alongside then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in the Rose Garden in October 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

With Donald Trump’s electoral track record taking another huge hit in 2022, there are increasing signs that the Republican Party establishment might decide its best course is to break with Trump in 2024.

But deciding that isn’t even close to half the battle. The rest of it — and a big reason the party has never truly tried — is how arduous he could make that process.

Say what you will about Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), but he’s actually been rather transparent about why the party needs to stick with Trump. In Graham’s telling, it’s not so much that Trump is particularly sufficient, but rather that he is necessary — that the party can’t win without him because of his hold on the base. And Graham has pretty explicitly named the nightmare scenario: that Trump sabotages the GOP on his way out.

“He could make the Republican Party something that nobody else I know can make it,” Graham told Axios’s Jonathan Swan last year. “He can make it bigger. He can make it stronger. He can make it more diverse.”

Then Graham quickly added: “And he also could destroy it.”

Swan pressed Graham on the point, suggesting he was stroking Trump’s ego so the former president didn’t go off and form a third party.

Graham didn’t take issue with the premise at all. “A third party would be a disaster,” Graham said.

But a third-party or independent run is hardly the only way in which Trump could hurt the GOP — or the avenue he’d most likely take. Nor has Trump been particularly shy about making Republicans fear that nightmare scenario, leaving the party to decide whether it wants to tempt his vengeance and how hard to try to facilitate a break.

Suggestions like the one Swan and Graham floated don’t come out of thin air. The last time the establishment truly attempted to thwart Trump — in 2016 — Trump repeatedly wielded an independent run as a stick. He signed a pledge to abide by the GOP nominating process, but then he repeatedly indicated that the pledge wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

“If I am treated fairly, that’s the way it’s going to be,” Trump said in 2015. “But I want to keep that door open. I have to keep that door open because if something happens where I’m not treated fairly, I may very well use that door.”

Donald Trump hinted on Feb. 28 that he might run as an independent, because the GOP is treating him "unfairly." It's not the first time he's made that threat. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

When some in the party criticized him after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, Trump brandished the stick again. He spoke to advisers about creating a Patriot Party or a MAGA Party. The strategy was rather transparently to keep his party in line ahead of the impeachment trial, and Trump ultimately proved successful in doing so. The third party became unnecessary.

There is a real question about whether these gestures were bluster. It certainly suits Trump’s purposes to threaten such a thing, as his impeachment showed. But actually running outside the two major parties involves jumping through hoops — especially if the effort were to be launched after he lost the 2024 GOP nomination (compared to, say, if he had launched a third party back in 2021).

Getting on the ballot can be difficult for independents, depending on the state, and would involve gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures. And some states even have “sore loser” laws that prohibit running as an independent after losing a party’s nomination. These laws generally don’t appear to apply to presidential candidates running as independents, but they might in key red states such as Ohio, South Dakota and Texas. That could severely hamper any real path to victory for Trump and thus could possibly dissuade him.

That said, such a run might aim at goals other than winning. And even getting on the ballot in a handful of states could wreck the GOP’s chances, if Trump’s goal were sabotage. While the number of Republicans who say they are primarily supporters of Trump rather than the party has declined substantially over the past two years, it’s still about 3 in 10. It’s not difficult to picture enough true believers deciding to go down with the ship, particularly if Trump convinces them that he was (and they were) wronged by the GOP establishment, the Justice Department or some other entity.

Perhaps the more likely approach — and the simpler one for Trump — is to subvert the party in other ways. This could include proactively attacking the GOP nominee, merely declining to support the nominee, or just doing generally unhelpful things such as, say, pushing the party’s voters to distrust the electoral system and disengage from it.

On this front, Trump has demonstrated more of a willingness to follow through (although in each case it is debatable to what extent sabotage was his deliberate aim):

  • Trump pressed forward with his ridiculous attempt to overturn the 2020 election even as Georgia was holding runoffs that would decide the Senate majority. He would later contend that the GOP lost those races because Georgians “didn’t want to vote” because they didn’t trust the system — something that’s inextricably linked to Trump’s lies about electoral fraud. Indeed, Republicans warned that his quixotic quest might cost the party in Georgia, and some evidence shows that it might have.
  • In the 2022 election, Trump didn’t appear at all chastened by that experience. He attacked the GOP Senate candidate in Colorado when that candidate tried to distance himself from Trump in a blue state. He also began his 2024 attacks on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on the eve of DeSantis’s reelection bid and on Election Day itself, previewing a new nickname and threatening to release opposition research on DeSantis.
  • While many in his party recently suggested that Trump should avoid launching his 2024 campaign while an important Georgia runoff is again in the balance, on Dec. 6, Trump thumbed his nose and pressed forward, anyway. Now, the campaign of Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) is using Trump’s announcement speech and its praise for GOP candidate Herschel Walker in a campaign ad.

The problem for Republicans is that Trump cares very little for the party, if at all. To the extent he does, it’s because of what the party can do for him. It’s a codependent relationship, in the truest sense. He has now cost it not just the presidency in 2020, but arguably the Senate majority in two straight elections — all while disregarding many warnings that his actions could be counterproductive.

There’s a case to be made that Trump ultimately could decide to just fade away, particularly if he loses the nomination and recognizes that his political career is finally, actually over. Would he want to be remembered not just as the former president who lost, but also as the former president who sabotaged his party in three straight elections?

But the damage needn’t even be deliberate. Pride and ego can cause a person to engage in some pretty destructive behavior. And few have demonstrated such a capacity for all three things like the former president.