The GOP has finally muscled its maverick front-runner, Donald Trump, into submission. A Trump adviser said on Thursday the billionaire has agreed to sign the Republican “loyalty pledge” he famously refused at the first debate in Cleveland last month, apparently ruling out a scenario that utterly terrified the GOP establishment: that Trump would launch a third-party bid and almost certainly deny Republicans the White House. With the stroke of a pen, Trump will put these fears to rest—and immeasurably weaken his own standing. He’s probably signing his political death warrant.
The adviser gave four reasons for why Trump decided to sign the pledge:
- He’s leading in the polls, so there’s no harm. It might even help him.
- This will deprive opponents like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush of an obvious line of attack: that Trump’s only in the race for his own aggrandizement.
- This inoculates Trump against his own history of supporting liberal candidates and policies. He can say, “Look, I signed the Republican pledge.”
- This ratifies Trump’s “alpha male” status because Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was set to come to Trump Tower with the pledge, rather than the other way around.
But signing the pledge is unlikely to accomplish any of the first three things, and the fourth is immaterial to anyone but Trump. There are a number of other reasons why it will hurt him.
First, it shatters the independent image that is the key to Trump’s appeal, the idea that he isn’t beholden to anyone or anything, and will make a “great” president precisely because of this. Recall that Trump gave the Fox News moderators a giant middle finger when they opened the Cleveland debate by asking him to pledge his fealty to the Republican Party. Trump refused and, as he will happily inform you, still won that debate going away.
Second, rather than quiet the attacks against him, this gives the GOP license to amplify them tremendously without fear of repercussion down the road. A Trump third-party bid, if perhaps unlikely, was a possibility that Priebus had to take seriously. He doesn’t anymore. Everyone can, and probably will, start wailing away on Trump, secure in the knowledge that when he slips from first place he won’t have an obvious recourse for revenge. And before someone pops up to say, “Trump could change his mind and run anyway!”—no, he couldn’t. He’d have a tough time getting on the ballot, and he’d look like a sore loser.
Third, by signing the Republican pledge, Trump invites everyone to judge him by that standard. But it's not a standard that favors him. Trump espouses all sorts of Republican apostasies, from supporting higher taxes on hedge fund managers to opposing cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Until now, his political image was that of someone larger than either party, who had some appealingly heterodox views. After today, he’ll be easier to attack as a Republican who won’t get with the program.
Finally, Trump seems not to understand the dynamics of the Republican primary process. The fact that he’s leading in the polls, while plainly gratifying to his ego, doesn’t mean very much. Anti-Trump sentiment among GOP voters is actually quite strong. The reason this isn’t more obvious is that it’s spread among the 16 other candidates (well, maybe 15—has science located a living, breathing Jim Gilmore supporter yet?). At some still-to-be-determined point in the future, when candidates begin dropping out and the field narrows, Trump’s 22 or 23 percent support will no longer be sufficient to put him in first place.
At that point he’s stuck. He can’t broaden his appeal. He can’t run as an independent. And because he signed the Republican pledge, he’ll be expected to act like a good Republican and get behind the nominee. He can throw a tantrum, if he likes. But all that will do is cost him a speaking slot at the convention. Which, if you’re Reince Priebus, was part of the plan all along.