Donald Trump made it three in a row today, with a convincing win in the Republican caucuses in Nevada. With 25% of precincts reporting, Trump has 43.8% of the vote; second place is a much closer contest, but Marco Rubio with 24.4% is edging out Ted Cruz on 22.2%. Ben Carson and John Kasich are well back in single figures.
It’s all made the Trump momentum start to look unstoppable. The betting odds now give him a 62.5% chance at the nomination, and Brian Beutler at the New Republic says that commentators have been guilty of “wishful thinking” in tipping that Trump would be defeated. So can anyone stop Trump?
The short answer is “yes, of course.” If Cruz and Kasich are knocked out (or knocked into irrelevance) fairly quickly, and the race settles down to a straight two-way contest between Trump and Rubio, it’s very likely that Rubio will win. Not certain by any means, but likely.
There’s no assurance, however, that that will happen. If Cruz does reasonably well next week on Super Tuesday – which contains plenty of favorable territory for him – he will be emboldened to stay in the race, hoping maybe to emerge as the compromise candidate at a brokered convention. For the moment, he and Rubio are still primarily fighting each other, not Trump.
The risk is that the process of sorting out the field will continue for long enough for Trump to build up a big delegate lead, and that from there a bandwagon effect will carry him to a majority. And for all his outrageousness, there’s a good chance that Trump will appeal more to the relatively moderate Republicans of the big northern and mid-western states – most of which vote late in the season – than the very conservative Rubio and Cruz. (Assuming that Kasich is out by then; if he stays in, that will muddy the waters.)
It’s understandable for the Republican Party to be panicking about this, since all the signs are that Trump as nominee would lead them to a massive defeat. But should the rest of us be so worried?
One view is simply that because Rubio is much more electable, he is therefore more dangerous. So those looking for a safe and sane world should paradoxically want Trump to win the nomination, since we can be confident he would then go on to lose to Hillary Clinton. Rubio, on the other hand, could actually win the presidency.
Others, however, will say that this is a cop-out, and that if it’s true that a Trump presidency would be a much bigger threat to the world than a Rubio presidency, then it is irresponsible to support Trump for the nomination. Elections have an inherently unpredictable element, and there is no guarantee Clinton would win. It’s even possible that the Democrats will instead nominate Bernie Sanders, who would have much greater difficulty in beating whoever the Republicans put up.
So is it true that Trump would be a worse president than Rubio? I’ve said before that I think Trump is at least uncomfortably close to qualifying as a fascist; my colleague Guy Rundle today describes him as “unquestioningly testing the outer edges of fascism.” Whatever you might say about Rubio, he’s not that far out of the mainstream.
But fascist regimes, while they’ve usually been pretty unpleasant for their own people, haven’t always been a threat to their neighbors. General Franco never pursued an aggressive foreign policy, and Mussolini was in power for 13 years before embarking on a colonial adventure (and even then he was following in his nineteenth-century predecessors’ footsteps).
And American democracy, while dysfunctional in many ways, is probably strong enough to cope with a rogue president – stronger anyway than Italy in the 1920s. A President Trump who, for example, tried to shut down Congress or send troops to arrest a state governor that he disliked would find that there were limits to how far illegal orders were obeyed.
Which brings us to the big difference between Trump and Rubio: the Republican Party would be loyal to a President Rubio in a way that it might not be to a President Trump. Trump would have to cajole people who are not naturally his supporters in order to get legislation passed; Rubio, although he might not get everything his own way, would be able to count on party loyalty to a much greater extent.
And in many respects the things Rubio would use that power for are scarier than what we might expect from Trump. Unlike Trump, Rubio is committed to the neocon project of open-ended religious war in the Middle East; he would push confrontation with Russia to a dangerous extent; he would pack the Supreme Court with supporters of unlimited government power (especially over women’s rights); he would work to erase the separation of church and state; and he would run up astronomical budget deficits with a combination of increased defence spending and tax cuts for the very rich.
None of this is to suggest that Trump would be a model president, or anything like one. But on all of those subjects and more his instincts seem to be a little more moderate and responsible than Rubio’s. (Or of course Cruz’s.)
The big issue running the other way is immigration, where Trump’s xenophobia could lead the nation into some very dark places. But in that he is very much in tune with the majority of his party, and it’s not clear whether Rubio in office would be able to resist the pressure to move in the same direction.
So yes, stop Trump by all means. But much more important to stop the madness that has taken over the Republican Party to such an extent that Trump, Rubio and Cruz are seen as serious candidates.
*UPDATE 2.45am Wednesday, Nevada time*
That’s a wrap, with very little change in the numbers. Trump wins with 45.9%; Rubio is a distant second on 23.9%, closely followed by Cruz on 21.4%. Then daylight: Carson has 4.8% and Kasich just 3.6%. According to the New York Times that will give Trump 12 delegates and Rubio and Cruz five each.
On the basis of that result, you’d certainly expect Cruz will be staying in for a while. He actually came first or second in 11 of the state’s 17 counties, so he’s got some support; he just couldn’t quite cut it in the cities. But the longer he stays around, the better it looks for Trump.