The GOP knew Trump was dangerous — why did they nominate him?
In her testimony to the Jan. 6 House select committee, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson detailed Donald Trump’s fury, his propensity for violent outbursts, and his disregard for the rule of law. The explosive testimony revealed unprecedented acts … for the office of the president.
The acts are not unprecedented for the man, however; this is who Trump has always been. His “disgraceful dereliction of duty” on Jan. 6 remains a singular threat to American democracy, but his disdain for the rules, procedures and norms of representative governance was well known when he announced his candidacy for president in 2015. And he continued to display his indifference to the Constitution and willingness to incite violence as he did at his rallies, during his 2016 presidential primary and general election campaigns.
In the third debate with Hillary Clinton, he refused — as he would four years later — to commit to conceding the election if he lost. He spewed unconstitutional and illegal threats: taking away citizenship or imprisoning flag-burners, reopening the closed investigation of his Democratic opponent’s use of a private email server and suing the media for news reports he disliked. His scorn for America’s rule of law was accompanied by racist and vulgar comments including his boast during an Access Hollywood taping about “grabbing [women] by the pussy.”
Anticipating his disregard for law and order, prominent Republicans in Congress, as well as former senior government officials, repudiated candidate Trump as “unfit” as the GOP nominee — some early on, some after the Access Hollywood tape. The serious misgivings of Republican leaders were confirmed after he entered the Oval Office, though most Republicans planning on a future in politics remained silent or fell in line behind him.
Given the clear-eyed assessment of candidate Trump by Republican leaders, why did the party nominate him as its presidential candidate in 2016? Why did his contempt for democratic rules, procedures and norms fail to disqualify him as its presidential candidate? Is there no “filter” in America’s representative system of government to block a dangerous renegade from seeking entry to the Oval Office?
The public airing of Trump’s secret plot to remain in power after losing the 2020 election reveals in stark terms his threat to American democracy and the ongoing peril of our presidential nomination process, which defers to a relatively small number of extreme party activists and allies.
Two major flaws in the primary election process opened the door to Donald Trump’s nomination despite the widespread opposition of Republican leaders.
First, small cliques of activists who hold extreme and, in some respects, unconstitutional views use low-turnout primaries to dictate the candidates that each party nominates. Trump fashioned his 2016 campaign to win narrow factions and voting segments to secure the nomination, even though it made him the most unpopular nominee in modern history. He stood out in the crowded primary field of 17 candidates for his fiery anti-establishment screed that appealed to the economic unease and social resentment of white Americans.
Second, the evaluation by voters of Trump’s tendency to defy the law and norms of conduct in the November 2016 election was short-circuited by partisanship. In our polarized time, independent judgment has been replaced by near-blind partisan loyalty. Almost all Republicans chose him over Hillary Clinton, positioning him to prevail.
Primaries do not filter out demagogues and authoritarians who can exploit them to demand obedience. Republican officials who were certain of Trump’s inappropriateness for the presidency were unable to stop his nomination and eventual election in 2016. Once in the seat of power, Trump converted GOP lawmakers’ dependence on extreme primary supporters who supported him into a weapon to cower many to acquiesce or support his violations of Constitutional and legal rules and norms, including his inciting of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Nearly seventy percent of GOP House representatives voted against accepting the outcome of the 2020 election in January 2021.
The 2016 Republican primary failed to block a known political deviant, and its incentive system deterred Republicans from performing the much-touted role of elites: doing the right thing for the country.
While the primary system was initially heralded for fulfilling the Declaration’s promise of political equality and popular consent, it equipped Trump’s relatively small number of primary supporters to steer the will of the majority. He strode onto the uniquely visible stages afforded by the primary, locked in his nomination despite the opposition of GOP leaders and cleared the barriers to put his name on the ballot in states across the country.
If America is going to stop the next Trump candidacy, Republican leaders must change the presidential nomination process to create the “filters” that James Madison recommended when designing the U.S. Constitution.
Lawrence R. Jacobs is the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota and the author of several books, including “Democracy Under Fire.”