Things should be going well for Donald Trump in the race for the Republican nomination. Despite a handful of losses to Ted Cruz in states like Utah and Colorado, Trump is expected to win big states like New York and Pennsylvania, giving him a boost that, in any normal race, would be big enough to force the other candidates out of the race.
Instead, there seems to be a surge of confidence that Republican party leaders will find some way to shut Trump out, even if doing so means holding their nose and accepting Cruz as the nominee. The conversation has conclusively shifted away from whether the Republicans will have a contested convention to a debate over what that will look like and whether or not the party needs to rethink rules that haven't been invoked for decades. If it comes to that, the only purpose would be to keep Trump from winning the nomination.
It's tempting to believe that all this conspiring will work and, despite the burp that was the Trump campaign, in the end, the party will still find a way to nominate someone who doesn't have a habit of retweeting people obsessed with "white genocide." But, as I argued last week, Trump isn't going to go easily into the good night.
On the contrary, I argued, the likeliest possibility was that Trump takes a three-pronged approach to winning the nomination in a contested convention: Bribing delegates to vote for him, threatening those who won't take bribes, and hitting the media hard to argue that he is allowed to play dirty because the other guys started it.
While I generally enjoy being right, this is one case where I'm truly sorry to say it's playing out just as I predicted. Trump has started to flirt more openly with the idea of using a bribes-and-threats strategy to win the nomination, even though he continues to pretend that he's not doing what he's clearly doing.
Sunday, Trump started to fantasize out loud about what bribing delegates would look like and using this to remind party leaders that he is better able to afford those bribes than his competitors.
“Look, nobody has better toys than I do,” Trump said to reporters at a Staten Island hotel. “I can put them in the best planes and bring them to the best resorts anywhere in the world.”
He seemingly disavowed such behavior, saying, "You’re basically buying these people" and that it's a "corrupt system."
It would be foolish to take such statements as a promise not to bribe people, however. On the contrary, the constant railing about corrupt systems is likely Trump laying the groundwork to argue that he is justified if he starts bribing delegates. After convincing his supporters that everyone else is dirty, the next step is clearly to argue that he has to play dirty, too, because otherwise he has an unfair disadvantage.
Paul Manafort, Trump's new campaign strategist, has been running around making noise about how the campaign will be "filing protests" against the primary systems in Colorado and Missouri. It's doubtful that the folks at Trump headquarters sincerely think they have a case here or that "filing protests" will somehow lead to getting more delegates from those states. All this public moaning and complaining is about creating the impression that Trump is facing an unfair, corrupt system, so any future corrupt behavior on Trump's part is justified.
Which is why the party should take it seriously when Trump issues threats. By and large, Trump has been using surrogates like Roger Stone to create threatening chatter about violence at the convention and stalking of delegates who vote against Trump, but Trump turned up the volume this weekend by making a thinly veiled threat of violence if he doesn't get his way at the convention in July.
"I hope [the convention] doesn’t involve violence," Trump told reporters at Staten Island. "I hope it doesn’t. I’m not suggesting that."
Uh-huh. Just like he isn't saying that he wants to bribe people just as he reminds you that he has both the resources and know-how to bribe people effectively. Trump's "I'm not implying what I'm clearly implying" act got old a long time ago, and at this point, there's no reason for anyone, especially the Republican National Committee, to give him any benefit of the doubt when he disavows violence or bribery to get his way.
Trump's history suggests that he has a habit of starting slow with these kinds of threats and insinuations and gradually turning up the heat. Odds are he's doing the same thing here: Start by having surrogates bring up the possibility of bribery and threats. Then start bringing the idea up yourself, while claiming to disavow it. Continue sowing the story that your opposition is deeply corrupt. The next step is likely to start shifting away from official disavowals to flirting with the idea that Trump has been forced, with great reluctance, to turn to violence and bribes in order to secure what the RNC would not allow him to gain honestly.
What this means is hard to say, since the convention is still months away (heaven help us all). But one thing is for certain: It's not enough for Cruz and other Republicans to focus on procedural means to deny Trump the nomination. By now, after nearly a year of living in our dystopian Trump nightmare, it should be clear that he cannot be killed off by ordinary means. That requires some respect for common decency or, barring that, having something to lose that can be held against them. Trump has neither and positively relishes crashing through and destroying all the carefully laid plans of career politicians.
To defeat Trump, Republicans will need a plan for when he, as he is clearly hinting he will do, start bribing and threatening delegates to get them in line. Empty platitudes about how they won't let anything bad happen isn't going to cut it. They need to plan for this as if it's an inevitability, because the way things are going, it is.