The Trump Reality

He may be the highest variable nominee in American history.


With his victory in the conservative heartland of Indiana, Donald Trump is the likely Republican nominee for President. A plurality of GOP voters has rejected the strongest presidential field in memory to elevate a businessman of few fixed convictions and little policy knowledge who has the highest disapproval ratings in the history of presidential polling. Now what?

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Mr. Trump wasn’t our first choice, or even the 15th, but the reality is that more GOP voters preferred him to the alternatives. Dozens of miscalculations made his hostile takeover possible, not least decisions by other candidates in the early primary states to attack each other instead of Mr. Trump. Ted Cruz and his allies also prepared the ground by stoking rage against “the establishment” and immigrants, only to have Mr. Trump hijack their stage-managed rebellion as a more convincing restrictionist. (See nearby.)
Yet GOP voters made the ultimate decision, and that deserves some respect unless we’re going to give up on democracy. The GOP electorate had its chance to reconsider Mr. Trump after his Wisconsin defeat a month ago. Instead the voters rallied behind him for seven straight wins with a majority in each state. 
The most hopeful way to look at this is that GOP voters see Mr. Trump as the vehicle for American revival. They are at heart nationalists who see the U.S. in retreat abroad and the economy failing to raise wages at home, and they are revolting against both. Unlike the Japanese or the French, they aren’t going to accept decline without a fight.
In that sense they hope Mr. Trump will be another Ronald Reagan,who can storm Washington and overturn the status quo. This may be one reason so many of Mr. Trump’s voters are older Americans who recall the failures of the 1970s and the Reagan revival that followed. 
The problem is that Mr. Trump is no Gipper, who had spent 40 years developing a philosophy of limited government and the U.S. national interest. As his letters show, he had superb instincts about the major issues of his day and was a brilliant political strategist. Mr. Trump is a clever political tactician, but his policy and rhetorical jaunts don’t lead to anything coherent we can detect beyond his desire to “do great deals.”
This might be a silver lining if he wins in November, assuming Republicans keep their House and Senate majorities. Congress would write the tax and health-care reform bills, and our guess is Mr. Trump would accept nearly anything once he got his “wall” at the border. An economic growth revival is more likely with President Trump than President Clinton.
The New Yorker’s foreign-policy instincts are far more troubling. He shares President Obama’s desire to retreat from global leadership even if he couches retreat in “America First” clothing and a larger defense budget. He’d have to deploy far more military force than he claims to subdue Islamic State, and he is naive about the challenge to Europe posed by Vladimir Putin. His trade policies are reckless and would either be rebuffed by the world or lead to a global recession.
All of this assumes Mr. Trump can win the election, which he promises he will do “easily” despite his unprecedented negatives. His main reason for optimism is that Hillary Clinton is almost as disliked as he is. But she will benefit from a largely unified Democratic Party, and Mr. Trump has divided Republicans while doing his best to alienate swing voters, especially “the Hispanics,” as he likes to say, and “the women.” 
Mr. Trump may be able to improve his image if he controls his perpetual insult machine, but there is little evidence that he can or will do so. The essence of his politics is personal, and it’s not obvious he knows any other way.

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The upshot is that Mr. Trump would be the highest variable presidential nominee in history. He has a chance to win, but he could also alienate or frighten so many voters that he loses in a landslide and takes the GOP House and Senate majorities along for the slide. Republicans across the country will have to make their own calculations about supporting Mr. Trump, but one priority should be limiting the down-ballot damage from a Trump washout. 
One temptation to avoid is purging every Republican who fails to denounce the Trump candidacy. This is an election, not the Spanish civil war. There’s a world of difference between a Chris Christie, who endorsed Mr. Trump when he was still stoppable, and Paul Ryan, who has a position of responsibility and will have to steer Mr. Trump in the right direction if the businessman wins—or rebuild the GOP if Hillary Clinton wins. 
Note that the political left is now echoing the conservative pundits who want to brand every Republican with a scarlet “T.” They know Mr. Trump lacks a governing philosophy. But they want to use him to undermine conservative ideas as an alternative to their vision of the redistributive state. They also hope to use Mr. Trump as a battering ram to take back Congress and destroy reform Republicanism in the states for a generation. Conservatives shouldn’t abet this strategy, even as they explain to voters the difference between Ryan conservatism and the Trump caricature of it.
Our own approach during the next six months will be to scrutinize Mr. Trump as we will Mrs. Clinton—with an eye on what is in the best interest of free people and American prosperity. As unappealing as this election choice is, one of them will be the next President. We have to make the best of that reality.

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