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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

How Republicans Could Prevent the Rise of Future Trumps

Donald Trump loves to complain about a "rigged" system, but some Republicans have been contemplating rigging it more to prevent a Trump 2.0.

by Mike Pearl
Oct 12 2016, 5:00pm

These are actually Donald Trump supporters in India burning this photo of the Republican nominee in May, but plenty of Republicans would like to warm their hands by this kind of fire. Photo by Ritesh Shukla/NurPhoto. Sipa via AP Images

The Year of Trump has been a nightmare for the officials running the GOP. The party has been plunged into chaos, with many members openly rejecting a candidate who has bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. Others who nominally support Trump, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, are distancing themselves from him the way you might a high school friend who started embarrassing you at every party you invited him to. Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Reince Priebus was reportedly losing faith in his candidate for a moment, and had to reassure everyone that Trump and the leaders of the RNC aren't fighting and "remain very much involved and together in all levels in making these decisions."

"People look at Trump and say, 'Oh, that's who you are! That's who the Republican Party is!'" Mickey Edwards, a former Oklahoma congressman who is a prominent NeverTrump Republican, lamented to me.

In Edwards's estimation, a few problems converged to create the Trump phenomenon: a crowded primary field in which "everybody in our party knew that Hillary [Clinton] was extremely beatable, and that's why they ran"; the involvement of too many independent voters, "some of whom have never voted"; and a primary season that gave too much credence to the views of the fringe in vital early-voting states. "You can't just dismiss the idea of momentum," he explained.

Trump took advantage of all this by winning the early states of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada (he placed second to Ted Cruz in Iowa), taking the majority of delegates despite never getting a majority of votes in those states. And throughout primary season Trump won primaries open to voters who weren't registered Republicans, suggesting that he was less popular among people who were really committed to the GOP.

"We've created a very bad system that allows—I don't know whether you would say it's too democratic—but it basically dilutes the power of the people who really are the party," Edwards said. A functioning candidate-selection process, he feels, would be "a matter of making sure that you nominate someone qualified for the job, even if their policies are controversial." So in short, he wants a process that would keep another Trump from being the nominee.

"Another Trump" could be any charismatic populist Republican the party elites don't actually want in power, not necessarily someone with Donald Trump's particular, um, attributes or campaigning style. The term "Trump" as we're using it here could include another run from Trump himself, or a candidate like Sarah Palin, or David Duke, or Michelle Bachman, or the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket.

Earlier this year, Republican leaders unhappy with Trump were looking to change the primary rules to close them to independents in the future (on the theory that those people would be the most likely to back another Trump), but that effort still failed at the Republican National Convention. Edwards feels that significant changes were shot down in an attempt to suppress any sense that the party was questioning Trump.

Edwards blames party leadership for this, Reince Priebus in particular. "He and [Paul] Ryan, with the weight of their titles and positions, were strengthening the narrative that Trump was putting out there, that we would steal it from him."

But Josh Putnam, a political science lecturer at the University of Georgia specializing in campaigns and elections, questions the wisdom of rule changes in the heat of the moment.

"The common theme among parties seeking to make rules changes to alter future outcomes is to overcorrect," Putnam told me. Essentially, there's always the possibility that by changing primary rules, a party could end up with a different flavor of nasty outcome. That happened after 2012, when GOP leaders, looking to avoid the drawn-out fight that battered eventual nominee Mitt Romney, changed a bunch of rules in the hopes of deciding a winner more quickly. One of those rule changes was allowing winner-take-all contests—which allowed Trump to grab all of South Carolina's important 50 delegates with only 32 percent of the state's votes.

"You could argue South Carolina launched Trump's campaign," Richard E. Berg-Andersson, creator of TheGreenPapers.org, one of the first election-tracking websites, told me.

Some Republicans, according to a May New York Times article, wanted to dilute the disproportionate power of early-voting states like South Carolina, Iowa, and New Hampshire by having other states vote at the same time. Edwards suggested those states could be New York or California, which currently vote well into the primary season when a clear frontrunner has often already emerged. "If you're going to have New Hampshire and Iowa, then you should also have some states that are more traditional Republican," he told me.

Rearranging the order of the primaries would be disruptive to say the least, however. If the party leadership tells Republicans in those states to get to the back of the line, Berg-Andersson said, "they're gonna fight back." If the Republican Party wants unity in 2020, it might think twice about pulling something like this.

Another issue is that the national party can't simply wave a wand and declare all primaries to be closed—the states have a lot of control over how their elections are run.

Anti-Trump Republicans are "in a quandary right now," said Berg-Andersson. "There's always been this tussle between how much the state can control their primary process, [and] how much the party, as a private association of likeminded individuals can say, 'You can't tell us what to do because we're a club!'"

Putnam suggested that the GOP focus less on the kinds of anti-populist efforts a future Trump-esque candidate might label "rigging the system," and more on just cleaning up some of the procedures that made the process chaotic in 2016.

Finally, there's the issue of 2016's unusually large pool of candidates, which resulted not just in a lot battles over the same constituencies, but in a chaotic and sometimes embarrassing debate stage. Putnam said that reforms here wouldn't be about party primary rules, but rather the debate committee. "The question is going to quickly become what metric or metrics best determine who will be among the six or so candidates who make the cut," Putnam said.

This smaller pool, Edwards thinks, would correct a system in which "a guy gets 20 or 25 percent, and the word is that he's on a roll, and he's earning the nomination, but he didn't get anywhere close to earning the nomination."

Edwards is optimistic about the possibility of rapid changes that could prevent another Trump, but he worries they'll come with a big downside: "One of the things that's worst for me to say as a Republican is that I think it's going to take a major disaster for this to happen." Change will probably come about, he thinks, if the GOP lost not just the White House yet again, but control of Congress.

"I think it's gonna have to be a real wipeout," he told me. And even then, he said, "just changing the rules isn't going to make everything suddenly better."

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