A central premise of my forthcoming book Too Dumb to Fail is that Republican politicians continually encounter perverse incentives. There is little downside to engaging in reckless rhetoric. Indeed, there are plenty of benefits to doing so. This creates a moral hazard. And in a flatter, less hierarchical world, nobody has the moral authority to call anyone out for this. There are no longer any adults in charge.
Enter Donald Trump — the latest example of how Republicans are cursed by the “tragedy of the commons.” Trump has every incentive to say horrible things (about Hispanics, and others), and while this collectively damages the Republican brand, it benefits Trump (at least, in terms of generating buzz and boosting his poll numbers).
As I noted a couple weeks ago, he has a real appeal among a certain segment of the conservative base. Attacks from the media and former business partners have only reinforced his victimhood status as a folk hero being punished for telling it like it is. On top of that, some relish the fact that he can speak truth to power with impunity; no matter what they say about him or take from him, he will still be rich and famous and utterly confident. He will not genuflect at the altar of political correctness. And that’s refreshing.
But those who view him as a phony and an opportunist who could tarnish the GOP’s image are starting to sound the alarm. There have even been calls to exclude him from the upcoming GOP debates.
As tempting as it is to join them, the problem, I think, is that it would be perceived as pretty heavy-handed for the RNC or a TV network to unilaterally decide to exclude the guy polling in second place in both national and early state surveys. This would be a slap in the face of the misguided voters who support him, and would likely turn Trump into a martyr. By all means, Republicans should denounce the horrible things he says, but excluding him from the debates would only make matters worse.
What is more, it’s hard to imagine the rationale that would justify his exclusion. It’s probably worth mentioning that, on top of everything else, he’s not really a conservative. But do we want to impose a litmus test? I suppose we could argue that he’s not really a politician, but by that logic, Carly Fiorina (the only woman running) and Dr. Ben Carson (the only African-American) would also be excluded. To be sure, you could argue that Trump’s comments were especially egregious. But being a “jerk” is a relative thing. It’s hard to quantify. Do we want to get in the business of punishing Republican candidates for saying controversial or politically incorrect things — because if we do, Trump won’t be the only one excluded.
As much as I hate to say it, the GOP has to go through this process. It’s likely to be painful; things will probably get worse before they get better. There will likely be a “clown car” quality to these early debates. But the best way to handle someone like Donald Trump is to give him enough rope to hang himself. As was the case with Joseph McCarthy — who ultimately exposed himself as a demagogue — sunlight is usually the best disinfectant.