In dispatch from Loserdom, Trump threatens third-party run if he loses GOP nomination

As the Republican Party continues its post-midterm meltdown, Donald Trump is rising to the occasion.

Trump used his Truth Social platform Wednesday to remind the Republican Party that he plans to destroy it if it cuts him loose. He included no text, he simply blasted out an article from the pro-MAGA site American Greatness titled, "The Coming Split."

In it, the author, Dan Gelernter, explores what might happen if a majority of GOP voters still want Trump as their nominee but the "Republican Party" refuses.

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"I have no intention of supporting a Republican Party that manifestly contravenes the desires of its voters," Gelernter writes. "The RNC can pretend Trump isn’t loved by the base anymore, that he doesn’t have packed rallies everywhere he goes. But I’m not buying it: Talk to Republican voters anywhere outside the Beltway, and it is obvious that he is admired and even loved by those who consider themselves 'ordinary' Americans."

Though fewer Republicans and GOP leaners than ever say they want Trump to run in 2024, it’s also true there’s still plenty of appetite for Trumpism and his mystique, shall we say.  

Gelernter pledges to support Trump as third party candidate if he does not prevail in the Republican primary.

"Do I think Trump can win as a third-party candidate? No. Would I vote for him as a third-party candidate? Yes. Because I’m not interested in propping up this corrupt gravy-train any longer," he explains, singling out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as entirely out of step with the base.

Gelernter isn't wrong about McConnell, who has completely lost grip on the motivations and desires of the MAGA Republicans who have overrun his band of party elites.

But the bigger immediate problem for McConnell and his ilk is the fact that Trump will surely burn the entire party to the ground if he doesn't clinch the nomination.

He is most certainly hinting at a third-party run that would almost surely doom Republicans in a general election.

But let's imagine a slightly less dramatic scenario in which Trump loses but doesn't launch an independent candidacy. He will never be the guy who graciously steps aside, endorses the GOP frontrunner, and works to elect them, a la Hillary Clinton in 2008 or Bernie Sanders in 2020 (to say nothing of 2016). Even if Trump isn't running, he will launch a revenge tour with the sole mission of burying the GOP standard bearer, whoever they may be.

Trump brought millions more voters into the Republican fold, and the party is now dearly dependent on motivating the MAGA base it gained after alienating suburban voters who once buoyed Republican turnout. If Trump’s not the nominee, he will undoubtedly instruct those MAGA voters to abandon the Republican Party as a corrupt institution of traitors to his cause. 

One way or the other, Trump is committed to making sure any party he isn't dominating is no party at all. Nothing will be left of the Republican Party if he can help it. So the GOP either gets Trump as a nominee, gets a third-party candidacy from him, or gets a scorched-earth campaign from Trump to raze the entire institution. How grand.

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This week on The Brief: Elie Mystal, the impeachment vote, and potential for a third party

On this week’s episode of The Brief, hosts Markos Moulitsas and Kerry Eleveld talked all things post-impeachment and the potential for the rise of a third major party in American politics. This episode’s featured guest was Elie Mystal, legal expert and writer at The Nation.

Markos and Kerry opened the show by discussing Trump’s second impeachment trial and what the process has shown about his lasting influence on the Republican party. Markos noted that Trump has hurt the party substantially, as demonstrated by the most recent election cycle, when Democrats captured the trifecta of the U.S. House, Senate, and the presidency. Moreover, Trump is the only the third president in 100 years to lose reelection. Yet, Trump’s hold over a significant chunk of GOP voters remained clear from the way Republican leaders responded to his incitement of the insurrection. As Kerry added, “Mike Pence wouldn’t even stand up for himself and his family after it became clear that Trump had targeted him.”

Elie Mystal joined for the first half of the episode to weigh in on the impeachment trial and share his thoughts on its sudden end on Saturday. As Mystal described, the Republicans in the U.S. Senate bore responsibility for what happened on Jan. 6, and that made unifying in convicting Trump more difficult:

The Senate, I think, was cowardly in a way I think we expected them to be. They themselves were complicit in the insurrection. That, I think, was something that was lost during the House managers’ [line of questioning] … They were trying to convince Republicans to come onto their side, and by trying to convince Republicans, that means you can’t call them out for their complicity in the violence … Republicans did everything that Trump did—except try to kill Mike Pence.

Mystal cited the attack on the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ campaign bus in Texas, where Trump supporters almost ran the vehicle off the road, and how Trump expressed support for the people who committed that dangerous act. Trump had long been stoking this violence, he said, as well as Republican senators like Marco Rubio, who expressed support for attacks like these.

Regarding the Democrats’ strategy, Kerry wondered aloud about witness intimidation and if it might have occurred the night before the closing arguments were to be heard: “What happened in that negotiation that they ultimately decided not to call witnesses? Was it Democrats backing off? Was it witnesses drying up?”

The trio then discussed the aspect of freedom of speech in the impeachment case and the Brandenburg test, which Markos asked Mystal to explain. The test is one that helps “determine when inflammatory speech intending to advocate illegal action can be restricted,” or basically when free speech isn’t protected.

Lastly, Markos, Kerry, and Mystal discussed Joe Biden’s pick of Merrick Garland for attorney general; the hopes Mystal has for the work Garland will do as AG; and the fact that Trump can still be tried for a multitude of other crimes, especially at the state level in places like New York and Georgia. Ending on a positive note, Mystal said, “I don’t know if ultimate responsibility will come to Trump, but some of these people that have been enabling him for four years, especially people like Rudy Giuliani—one of the things that Trump has shown is is that while he may be Teflon, people around him ain’t.”

After their conversation with Mystal, Markos and Kerry talked about what has happened since Trump left office and how he continues to have a hold on the Republican Party. Kerry floated the idea of a third party becoming a prominent force in the coming years and noted that support for a third American political party is at an all-time high—as evidenced by the results of a recent Gallup poll. As she explains, the infrastructure exists for a third party to rise, led by someone like Rep. Adam Kinzinger (IL-16), a Republican who voted in favor of impeachment. A number of voters are changing their affiliation away from Republicans.

Kerry listed several reasons as to why she believes this:

1. The GOP’s image is plummeting.

2. There’s more support than ever for a third party.

3. Tens of thousands — a unique number of voters — are changing their affiliation away from being Republicans.

4. You have a bunch of former GOP officials who know both the governance side and the political side, the electoral side, of running a party.

Markos indicated that Trump represented a major turning point for the GOP. As he said, “How did Donald Trump get that many more votes? … And it’s one thing for him to win in 2016 when you don’t really know who he is, or you’re smitten by the fact that he’s a celebrity. But to see four years of Trump chaos and say, ‘Yeah, I want more of that.’ That’s what hurt me most on election night.”

Kerry agreed, saying, “The situation from the insurrection has really opened up a gaping wound in the Republican Party that cannot be fixed. They cannot paper over this.”

As Markos and Kerry closed out the discussion with an audience question, they came to agree that a third party is more likely to emerge from never-Trumpers, rather than die-hard Trump fans.

You can watch the full episode here:

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Republicans really are headed for that iceberg, and they have no idea

For the past several weeks, I've been simultaneously consumed with two things: How well the Biden administration seems to have learned the lessons of the Obama administration, and the disintegration of the Republican Party playing out in real time.

And while I've been reveling in the first, the second phenomenon has been simply mesmerizing. In fact, it reminds me of watching the GOP meltdown in advance of the Georgia runoffs and thinking, could this really be happening? Yes, in fact: It was real in Georgia, and now I find myself similarly contemplating the idea that the Republican Party might actually be imploding too.

The supposition has both tangible and theoretical underpinnings, and the tangibles have been presenting for several weeks. The GOP's tarnished image among Americans, an accelerated rate of GOP defections in party affiliation, and a growing discomfort among corporate donors all seem to make recent talks by former GOP officials of forming an alternative conservative party an actual possibility, rather than just the escape fantasy it was in 2016.

In some very concrete ways, this political moment may actually provide fertile ground for the makings of a third party: Exiled leaders who know both the electoral and governance sides of politics, a host of wealthy donors who are ready to pony up for a new venture, and a fresh crop of disillusioned voters who are newly looking for a home.  

But a healthy part of my fascination with the prospect of a budding competitor to the GOP stems from how totally oblivious Republican Party leaders are to the potential threat. In fact, the formation of a third party wouldn't even be conceivable but for the fact that Republican lawmakers have so quickly fumbled the potential for a post-Trump reboot. A narrow window had opened—between the Jan. 6 riot and Joe Biden's inauguration—in which it seemed the GOP might finally break with Donald Trump just enough to remain palatable to a swath of disaffected conservative voters. But without getting into all those particulars (or the numerous preceding missed opportunities by the GOP), what is clear as day now is that Senate Republicans seem poised to acquit Trump yet again of impeachment charges after House Democrats explicitly warned them last year that, short of conviction, Trump would surely betray the country again. 

"We must say enough—enough!" implored lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff of California on Feb. 3, 2020. "He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again. He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again."

Naturally, Senate Republicans immediately hit snooze on that prescient warning so they could get back to business as usual. This time around, the same caucus is planning to acquit Trump on charges that are eminently more comprehensible and that some 33 million Americans witnessed with their very own eyes on Jan. 6. The video evidence presented by House managers was both riveting and searing, and Trump’s defense team withered in the harsh light of the indefensible. 

All of those factors make the posture of Republicans, whatever they might tell themselves, just so blatantly bogus. In fact, even they are admitting House managers presented such a compelling case that Trump would never be electable again. But somehow those same GOP lawmakers stopped short of making the logical leap that acquitting Trump of such a manifest betrayal might also turn them into political pariahs among a meaningful portion of the electorate (which notably in today’s terms could comprise a very small slice of voters). On the one hand, Trump's transgressions were so egregious that he has been rendered unelectable; on the other, they deemed themselves magically immune to any consequences from kowtowing to Trump at the expense of the country.    

So there's a stab at the tangibles that suggest rough sledding ahead for the GOP—an evident fall from grace across sectors accompanied by an impenetrable cognitive dissonance. It seems promising, particularly because Republican lawmakers have proven either too thick or too flat-footed to adjust to the combustible environment in which they exist. Then again, we've been here before, right? Remember all those Obama-era predictions that the GOP was getting ready to fall off a demographic cliff? Any number of D.C. pundits prematurely declared the party dead unless it retooled top-to-bottom. But within a handful of years, Republicans regained control of both congressional chambers. Then along came Trump in 2016, doubling down on the party's most despicable brand of white identity to win the GOP nomination, the election, and make a decent but ultimately unsuccessful stab at securing reelection.

The doomsday arguments pundits were making a decade ago leaned heavily on the numbers game—demographics as destiny—and whether the GOP could find enough voters to get to 50+1 in any given election. But another way of dissecting the fortunes of the Republican Party is through the lens of our political system’s organizing structure in which white identity is rapidly losing dominance as an organizing principle. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas and I discussed this with political historian Kathleen Frydl on The Brief this week (podcast/YouTube). Frydl recently wrote for The American Prospect, "As the white share of the electorate falls, so too does the reach and relevance of a party dedicated to structural racism." Frydl argues that the U.S. is entering uncharted territory in the sense that, since the nation's founding, at least one of its organized political factions has always been "dedicated to preserving institutionalized racism," whether that meant flat-out slavery or its many descendants over the centuries. "Most important is the fact that the standard historical pattern—that some entity exists ready to accommodate the politics of white privilege without risking majority status itself—no longer applies," she writes.

This proposition—that one party in our two-party system can no longer count on an appeal to white identity alone without risking political irrelevance—has been turning over in my mind. It’s both theoretically compelling and materially intriguing at a moment when the Republican Party has continually proven incapable of reaching out to new demographics even as it undergoes an unusual exodus of voters in critical states across the country. The truth is, many of those voters likely don't want to become Democrats, but they have simply been forced to the exits by the stench and toxicity of Republicanism. In all likelihood, those voters would jump at the chance to vote for a conservative third-party candidate. 

So while I have remained skeptical over the last decade that the nation's demographic shifts would yield anything but a realignment along the left-right continuum in American politics, I now wonder if we are seeing the political precursors that portend a third party on the horizon. How long that third party might exist and whether it could potentially reshape American politics as we know it altogether are different questions entirely. Historically, Frydl notes, third parties such as the “Dixiecrats” of the late ‘40s or Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party of 1912 kicked off a roughly 20-year transition period before one of the nation’s two dominant parties subsumes that movement and consolidates power. But predicting the longevity of a third-party movement is beyond my present-day concerns and certainly the scope of this piece. In the very near-term—as in 2022 and 2024—the initiation of such a movement would be a complete calamity for the GOP.