Can the Republican Party–and maybe the conservative movement–excommunicate Donald Trump? I mean, of course, excommunicate him politically–cast him into the outer darkness beyond the Republican Party and outside of conservatism. This is what famed conservative columnist George Will wants, as he explains here. But the thing is not as easy as Will seems to think, and the difficulties show how politics has changed over the last few decades.
Will notes correctly that a political party has a right to “control its own borders.” It has a right, in other words, to exclude candidates that it regards as interlopers. This is a sound principle, but it is hard to do in practice these days. Fifty years ago parties could exert this kind of discipline. But since the parties have become democratized–since the candidates are now chosen by popular voting in primary elections–they really have very little power to do anything of the sort to a candidate who has a certain amount of popularity or who has a lot of money by which to run his campaign. And Trump has both of those at the moment.
This leaves Will with a rather weak tool. He says the Party should stipulate that no candidate will be permitted to participate in the debates who does not pledge to support the Party’s nominee. That sounds good, but it overlooks the possibility that Trump would sign that deal–to use Trumpian language–quite willingly. After all, such a stipulation would mean that all the other candidates would be pledging to support Trump if he won the nomination. Will evidently regards Trump as utterly unacceptable, so he ought to think carefully before running such a risk.
Will then moves from the Republican Party to the conservative movement, which he also says should banish Trump. He invokes here William F. Buckley’s decision in the 1950s to exclude the John Birch Society from mainstream conservatism. Again, however, the thing is not as doable as Will believes. And, again, the problems show how things have changed.
In order to excommunicate, you need to have authority. And Buckley had a kind of authority then that probably no conservative has today. In the first place, Buckley could excommunicate the Birchers because nobody could doubt Buckley’s stern anti-communism. The Birchers accused President Eisenhower, no less, of being a conscious agent of communist influence. When Buckley, a fierce anti-communist, denounced them, everybody could see that he was not soft on communist but was just denouncing a form of nuttiness. Buckley could do this because anti-communism was the central issue that National Review stood for in the 1950s. It stood for a lot of other things, too, but nobody could doubt that anti-communism was the thing on which all of its editors and writers agreed.
In contrast, today conservative publications are generally split on the question of illegal immigration and immigration generally. Some of their writers think it is a big concern, while others are less worried about it, and some even criticize those who worry about it. As a result, no conservative publication or institution has the kind of standing with people concerned about this issue that Buckley and National Review had for people in the 1950s concerned about communism.
In the second place, and more obviously, no conservative writer or institution today has Buckley and National Review‘s authority from the 1950s simply because today there are lots of various organs of conservative opinion. In the 1950s National Review was far and away the most important conservative journal, really the only important conservative journal. And there was no internet or talk radio. Similarly, William F. Buckley was the leading conservative intellectual. But you can’t say that about any single conservative figure today.
George Will is going to have to figure out a different plan.