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Trump Is the One Who Wants to Burn It All Down

Maybe stop worrying about the Never Trumpers and start worrying about the guy actually blowing up the GOP?
August 1, 2020
Trump Is the One Who Wants to Burn It All Down
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock / Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

1. Incentives

In 1996, everyone knew Bob Dole was going to lose. You knew it. I knew it. The American people knew it.

But Dole fought the good fight. He campaigned hard. He did not sow chaos and destruction across the American political landscape.

Why not?

Because Bob Dole was a Republican who had an institutional interest—not merely a personal interest—in the health of the Republican party. Dole’s incentives were aligned with the party’s incentives, and so Dole ran an honorable campaign that gave down-ballot Republicans the ability to not only survive, but thrive.

The GOP held its majority in the House (they lost only three seats) and actually picked up two Senate seats in 1996, even as Clinton beat Dole by +9 points.

Here is a thing some people said in 2016 about Donald Trump:

This man, in addition to his general bad character and unfitness for office, has no interest in the Republican party as an institution and will burn it to the ground if he thinks it will profit him one iota. Ceding control of the party to a person whose incentives have previously, and may in the future, wildly diverge from the party’s incentives is an invitation to disaster.

So, about Trump’s delay-the-election tweet yesterday . . .

What is Donald Trump’s incentive structure right now? The hierarchy pretty obviously goes something like this:

(1) Win the election.
(2) Avoid blame for losing the election.
(3) Bind his voters more tightly to his own person.
(4) Establish a framework for his next venture.

You will note that “Protecting Congressional Republicans” is not on that list.

It is becoming clear—even to Trump—that barring extreme outside events, his primary goal is off the table. While it remains possible that some event intercede—a meteor strike, a shooting war, a health crisis—there is nothing that Trump himself can really do to change the outcome of the election.

And so as you move down Trump’s incentive structure, he has pivoted to items (2), (3), and (4).

In furtherance of those goals, we should expect Trump to be more erratic and outlandish, more openly racist, and to flirt even more openly with outright delegitimization of the election.

Why? Because these actions will shift blame away from himself, activate and validate the bitter-enders who are part of the Trump cult, and provide him with a launch pad for his post-presidential scheme, where he can promise to give people the real story of what happened with the election. (For just $9.95 a month.)

All of this will be—just objectively speaking—good for Trump. It will make him money, enhance his hold on the Republican party, and pave the way for him to be the decider on the party’s 2024 nominee.

It is unlikely to be good for the Republican party.

In all the hand-wringing about how the awful, no-good Never Trumper types want to “burn it all down” you rarely see any Republicans complaining about how it’s Trump who’s doing the actual burning.

Which only proves my point. The party made a deal with a man they did not fully understand. And now they’re trying to pass the bill to someone else.

Before we go, one final word:

I’ve gotten a lot of email this week to the effect of: Voters like winners and hate losers and once Trump loses, they’ll turn away from him just like they did previous presidential losers.

Simply put: I don’t buy it. The difference is that previous presidential losers—Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush—let their voters go. They had no interest in keeping their voters bound to them and made no efforts to do so. They took their election loss as their final act in the public arena and then retreated to private life where they tried to effect some good in the world, away from the spotlight.

Donald Trump is not going to do that.

He is going to work hard to keep his people as his people. And I see no reason to believe that the same people who have decided to not wear masks in the middle of a pandemic out of blind fealty to him are going to shrug and say, “Oh well. On to Nikki Haley.”

2. Screen Time

Just a reminder that we have a new newsletter about the future of Hollywood. It’s written by Sonny Bunch and you can sign up for it here.

It comes out once a week, on Friday afternoons, and it’s great. If you care at all about movies and culture, you should be reading it.

3. Friday Peter Steiner

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.