Donald Trump said last night that he cannot promise to support the eventual Republican nominee. Trump explained that he wants the “leverage” that refusing to make that promise provides.
In a post-debate interview with Sean Hannity, Trump expanded on the theme of leverage. By not committing to support the nominee now, he can increase his chances of being treated fairly going forward, Trump told Hannity. He added that he hopes to support the GOP nominee even if it’s someone else, and he thinks his treatment by the Republican establishment is improving. But he’s going to wait to see whether he’s treated with respect throughout the process.
It’s a shrewd move, the kind you would expect from a shark-like business man and the author of The Art of the Deal. Indeed, the premise of Trump’s candidacy is that he will use leverage to make sure America stops “losing” to the likes of China, Japan, and Mexico. So why not demonstrate his ability to use leverage now, in the context of the GOP race?
There are a few problems with Trump’s “leverage,” though. One pertains to Trump’s idea of being treated fairly and with respect. For a tough-guy businessman, he’s awfully thin-skinned. Trump’s whining about his treatment by Megyn Kelly is one example. His general post-debate complaint that the questions “weren’t nice” is another.
Trump seems to equate “respect” with an exemption from tough questions and harsh criticism. If you’re a tycoon, I imagine you get these sorts of exemptions in your daily life. But those who seek and/or hold political office can’t expect them. Nor should the Republicans want a nominee who thinks he has the right to be treated with kid gloves.
Republicans might treat Trump in a way that any reasonable person would find sufficiently respectful. Yet he might genuinely believe that he has been disrespected and, accordingly, run a third party race.
The other problem is that we can’t trust Trump to support the GOP nominee even if he’s fully satisfied with his treatment throughout the season. What’s to stop Trump from going ahead with a third party campaign anyway?
This is the behavior one would expect from a shark-like tycoon — one who stiffs his creditors and thinks nothing of it on the grounds that they themselves are sharp operators, not innocents. If Trump really wants to run as a third party candidate, he’s going to do it whether Republicans are nice to him or not. He’ll do it and take pride in having duped the “stupid” Republicans.
What might deter Trump from running as a third party candidate? Perhaps the collapse of his “second party” candidacy. Trump doesn’t want to become a laughingstock. If his support withers away, he may call it a day.
In the meantime, the party establishment should try to be fair to Trump. As for his leading opponents, they should treat him with respect for now, as they did last night.
But there may come a time when they will need to attack his left-of-center record and his Clinton connections. Trump won’t think it’s nice, but they shouldn’t hesitate to do so.
Nor will they, unless they really are stupid.