Chicago 1968... Cleveland 2016?

Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, center, sp
Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, center, speaks to the media in the spin-room following the Republican presidential candidate debate sponsored by CBS News and the Republican National Committee at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. Donald Trump tops the GOP field with support from 36.3 percent of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters with Ted Cruz at 19.6 percent, according to a poll conducted for the Augusta Chronicle released on Friday. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Republican National Convention will be held in Cleveland later this year. Already it is shaping up to be one of the most contentious party meetings in American history, even months ahead of time. Pretty much no matter what happens, there are going to be some seriously disappointed people (and that's putting it mildly), both within the convention hall and out in the surrounding streets. That much, at this point, seems almost guaranteed. The real question is whether this will boil over into anything other than the usual disgruntled muttering of the supporters of a losing candidate or not.

Salon ran an article today from Digby which details some of the behind-the-scenes planning by supporters of Donald Trump. Some are already using the phrase "days of rage" for what they want to see happen if Trump is somehow denied the GOP nomination. This, of course, harkens back to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which saw waves of rioting in the streets (and also gave birth to the cry: "The whole world is watching!" since the television cameras were rolling during some of the worst of it). Could this be the year when Republicans see some sort of replay of what the Democrats went through in 1968?

Normally that would be an incredibly provocative question to even ask. It might even border on incitement -- again, if these were normal times. But these are anything but normal times, obviously. Donald Trump himself pondered whether there would be riots in the streets at the convention, in an interview earlier this year. Most of the media tried to portray this as Trump instructing his followers to riot, but that's not precisely what he said. He was asked what he thought would happen if he were to be denied the nomination, and he gave an honest answer: "I think there'd be riots." The reason I defend his use of the word "riot" is because that is exactly what I had been thinking as well: "Trump denied? Riots in the streets."

Further proof, should any be required, comes from major Trump supporter Roger Stone, who sounded this clarion call last week:

Go to Cleveland. Come to Cleveland. Don't let the big steal go forward without massive protest. Peaceful, nonviolent protest.

So, as they used to say, don't wait for orders from headquarters. Ride to the sound of the guns.

I don't mean to imply violence on that. I mean: Ride to where the action will be.

We have to let the Republican bosses and the kingmakers and the insiders and the lobbyists know that we're not going to stand for the big steal. So if you are a Trump supporter, make plans now.

Take a bus! Hitchhike! Carpool! Take a train! Fly, if you can afford it.

We need you in Cleveland!

Even without that "days of rage" phrase, the parallels to the Democrats in 1968 are pretty stark. The people think the political system is rigged against them and their cause, and they intend to let everyone know about it, in as big a way as possible.

The speculation about an "open" or "brokered" convention is currently at a fever pitch. It was already a hot topic among the pundits, but Ted Cruz's victory in Wisconsin has shoved it into overdrive. Normally merely a "what if" scenario that nobody but political wonks love to dream about, this year the chances of it becoming reality are greater than they have been in the past four decades. But there's a big question that almost all the pundits fail to ask themselves, in the midst of all this rampant open convention speculation.

That question is: What happens next? Say the wonky dreams come true and Donald Trump does not have a simple majority of delegates -- the amount necessary to win on the first ballot. Say also that somehow the party manages to nominate someone else on a second, third, or eighty-seventh ballot. What then? What happens next? Nobody really wants to contemplate this aspect of their predictions -- the pundits and party insiders all prefer to then pivot immediately to the general election, as in: "Paul Ryan could be a white knight candidate who rides in and saves the party from Trump and Cruz, and then goes on to wage a successful campaign against Hillary Clinton." Perhaps that might happen, but it completely ignores what the immediate (and visceral) reaction from the Republican base would surely be.

There are only, really, three scenarios to contemplate for the Republican National Convention. Either Trump wins, Cruz wins, or someone else wins. Trump could win outright, on the first ballot. Trump could actually win on a subsequent ballot, by picking up delegates from non-Cruz candidates (especially if he's only a handful of delegates away from winning). Either way, the outcome is the same: the candidate who won the most support from the Republican electorate wins the Republican nomination. This would actually, at this point, be the best possible outcome for those Republicans who care about party unity. That sounds counterintuitive, but when stacked up against the other possible outcomes, this would indeed be the best for holding the party together.

The Republicans are divided into three factions. There are the legions of Trump supporters, there are those who truly love Ted Cruz for his conservatism, and then there are the party establishment types. Both the Cruz and the establishment factions might consider launching some sort of third-party run against Trump if he wins the nomination, but in the end this effort will likely fizzle in one way or another. The problem is that there really isn't anyone for them to rally around -- that's been the party's problem all along, in trying to stop Trump. The establishment types are rallying around Cruz at the moment, but this is merely a marriage of convenience -- they are attempting to use Cruz as a means to an end (denying Trump the nomination), pure and simple. The establishment types have no love for Cruz at all, and would not leave their party if he launched a third-party bid. Remember, at heart the establishment types are the "party above all else" people. Some of them might announce they could never support Donald Trump, but the vast majority of them will eventually fall in line and dutifully "support the nominee of the Republican Party." It is in their nature to do so, since (after all) they are establishment types. Even many of the voters who have been supporting Ted Cruz would likely fall into line behind Trump eventually, rather than follow Cruz off into the third-party wilderness. Trump winning the nomination would actually give the Republican Party the best chance to heal their internal wounds before the general election, as strange as it may seem.

Consider the two other alternatives the party could take in Cleveland. Ted Cruz could masterfully play the delegate-choosing game, and -- after the first ballot denies Trump his victory -- Cruz could emerge with enough delegates to grab the nomination. He's really the only other viable candidate who has proven he's able to get a large amount of voter support, so he'd be the natural alternative to Trump. If Cruz emerges as the party's nominee, then of course his conservative supporters would be happy. The establishment Republicans would also consider this an acceptable outcome, and would fall in line behind Cruz (indeed, most of them already have). But the Trump supporters are not going to go quietly into the night, to put it mildly. More on this in a moment.

The third scenario would actually be the worst, for those who care about party unity. Say a miracle happens, and the party rejects both Trump and Cruz after the initial round of balloting. Say it turns into a real "brokered" convention, with party bigwigs in smoke-filled back rooms (well, "smoke-free," these days, but that is still the correct historical term to use). The party elite would plot and scheme and eventually emerge with a "consensus" candidate -- Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, the ghost of Ronald Reagan, or whomever they came up with. Ironically, this choice would be intended to heal the rifts in the party so they can present a unified front in the general election fight. This would not happen, however. Far from it.

If some "consensus" nominee emerges, it is going to absolutely enrage a majority of the party's voters. The establishment Republicans, of course, will not see this coming, and instead be left wondering why their "consensus" candidate cannot achieve any sort of consensus. The Trump supporters would be just as enraged as if Cruz had won -- but so would the Cruz supporters. Cruz commands the Tea Party wing of the Republicans, to a large extent -- those whose complaint for the past few decades has been: "Why doesn't the party nominate a true conservative instead of losing so many elections with the centrist candidate the establishment types love?" Ted Cruz would be the perfect conservative experiment, since he is about as pure a conservative as you could even imagine. Denying him the nomination -- after supporting him to dethrone Trump -- is going to enrage all of his true conservative supporters. Paul Ryan (or any other "consensus" candidate) would be seen as a traitor to the cause, a betrayal of the grand "true conservative nominee" experiment. So nominating a "consensus" candidate would actually result in the least amount of party unity of any of these choices, since doing so would anger not only the Trump supporters but also the Cruz supporters -- which, added up, roughly equal at least two-thirds of the Republican base who voted in the primaries.

Nominating Trump would avoid more party disunity than the other two options, in other words. Strange but true, but then it's been that sort of year. Not nominating Trump would lead to utter disarray -- and that's at best. At worst, it could lead to rage in the streets. If the party took the "consensus" candidate route, there might not just be Trump rage in the streets, there might be competing Trump and Cruz supporters incensed at what was happening inside the convention hall.

That's a pretty ugly thing to contemplate, admittedly. Even inside the convention, if Trump is denied the nomination there are going to be a whole lot of seriously annoyed pro-Trump delegates (Cruz won't be able to totally pack the house). Even the best case is pretty ugly -- the party calls the delegate roll and announces someone other than Trump as the nominee, accompanied by loud booing and catcalls. Picture it: "Paul Ryan, Republican nominee... BOOOOOOO!!!" That's a spectacle just made for the television cameras, and not exactly the best "party unity" message to send to the public. And remember, that's the best case. Slightly worse would be if all the Trump supporters stood up together and marched out of the convention in unison, angrily screaming all the way. In this case, it wouldn't match the Democratic National Convention of 1968, but instead that of 1948, when the Dixiecrats stormed out to create their own party and nominate Strom Thurmond. Again, this would be tailor-made for television, the spectacle of incensed delegates streaming out of the hall while the congratulatory balloons are supposed to be dropping. The worst case scenario would be not just fistfights and rioting outside the convention, but fistfights and rioting inside the convention, as well. This is a real possibility, at this point. Sad, but true.

If Donald Trump is not guaranteed the nomination on the first ballot, the math will be clear weeks before the convention convenes. If there is a movement to steal the nomination away from Trump, it will take place out in the open. It is already openly being discussed by all kinds of Republicans, so if it becomes a real possibility I seriously doubt it'll suddenly become a secret plot or anything. It'll play out on cable television, instead.

This will give the most fervent Trump supporters time to heed the call of those who see "days of rage" as a good thing. It'll give them time to travel and gather in Cleveland in preparation for the convention. In 1968, the protests and riots occurred right outside the convention hall. This won't happen in 2016, because security zones are a lot wider these days. But even a few blocks away, the cameras will still be rolling. My guess is that if Donald Trump isn't nominated as the Republican presidential candidate this year, there are going to be some mighty disappointed people loudly letting the world know what they think. Which is the real answer to the mostly-unasked question of what happens after a brokered convention comes up with some way to stop Donald Trump. What happens next might indeed be rage in the streets.

 

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