As much as Donald Trump called “foul” on tough questioning in the Fox debate, including the Big Question about whether everyone was committed to supporting the Republican nominee, from the point of view of independent voters, the questioners weren’t nearly tough enough. Or, put another way, independent enough.
Trump was the only one on the stage who refused the GOP loyalty oath, threatening an independent run for the presidency. Since Trump raised that possibility, it is more than fair to consider the questions that independents would ask of him. What does he have to say to the 44 percent of Americans who have refused to join a political party? Does he have or is he seeking support from any leaders in the independent movement? Can he point to a successful history in third party politics? Is he willing to support the political reform agenda that binds independents together, in spite of our ideological differences?
Surely, in upcoming debates, it wouldn’t hurt to ask all the candidates on all of the debate stages whether, for example, they support opening the Republican presidential primaries to independent voters. This is timely, especially given that GOP hardliners from South Carolina to Arizona have been trying to force open primary states to close them.
Trump has touched a nerve in the Republican electorate and he has frightened the GOP establishment with his threat of an independent run and his refusal to abide by the rules of political correctness. But Trump’s populist performance is only in the rhetoric. Independents see deeper structural problems in our political system, which are both a product and propellant of the “political correctness” divide that so many Americans would like to move beyond.
For the record, Trump actually does have a history in third party politics. When the Perot revolt was in full bloom and this turn of the century populist movement–which housed a genuine right/left alliance–was consolidated in 1996 into the national Reform Party, some Republican outcasts “came a courtin’.” Most notable was Patrick Buchanan, who led a conservative pitchfork rebellion in the GOP presidential primaries in 1992, but who had lost much of that support. Recruited by Perot’s 1996 Vice Presidential running mate Pat Choate, Buchanan bolted from the GOP in 1999, marched into the third party arena, and began to compete for the $18 million of public funding that the party would receive for the 2000 election. The Republican establishment excoriated him for disloyalty, much as the Republican field did to Trump last Thursday night.
Panic set in inside the Reform Party, as some leaders believed Buchanan would make Reform the laughingstock of American politics. Foremost among them was Jesse Ventura, who presumably knows something about laughing stocks. Ventura and his crowd turned to a figure they hoped would enter the Reform primary process and be a serious and moderate alternative to the arch conservative bomb thrower Buchanan. Guess who? Donald Trump.
Trump met with Reform Party leaders to test the waters for a run. He attempted to field a slate of pledged delegates to the Reform Party national convention through the New York Independence Party (which elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg the following year), but those slates were disqualified for insufficient signatures. Trump, who had re-registered into the Independence Party, was neither serious enough nor popular enough among independents to meet this simple benchmark. He funded the anti-democracy wing of the party, to no avail. His independent candidacy faded away, before it even began.
It is not without some irony that Trump, the anti-Buchanan of 2000, has become the Buchanan of 2016, a politically incorrect social conservative disrupting the Republican status quo and threatening to break open the floodgates to a third party candidacy.
However, the independent movement of today is not what it was when the Reform Party, Buchanan, and Trump imploded in 2000. Much has happened to shape the independent movement since then.
The size of the independent voting bloc has ballooned to almost half the electorate. These voters don’t like parties and they don’t like partisanship. The issues that animate independents across the spectrum are process issues, namely how to reform the political system to give political power to the people, not to the parties and the partisans. The center of gravity among reform activists is shifting away from campaign financing toward nonpartisan elections, redistricting, and disclosure. Self-dealing control of the mechanics of elections is being challenged by billionaires and black militants, sometimes even together.
Trump has the money to launch an independent bid. It will cost $15 million to get on 50 state ballots and tens of millions more to promote his candidacy. But, as an independent, and with the Republican base tied to whomever the GOP nominee is, he will be hard-pressed to poll the 15 percent necessary to qualify for the general election presidential debates. If the debate qualifications are changed, as many are currently demanding, and Trump manages to capture a single debate slot reserved for a non-major party contender, the blowback in the independent movement will be uncontainable. Independents rejected Buchanan’s efforts to turn the movement into a social conservative haven. They will also balk at the idea that Trump is the legitimate product of the independent sector.
Likely, Trump’s ride inside the GOP will come to an end, but not before he has done significant damage to the party. This alone will enhance the long-term appeal of independent politics, which grows as the two parties are made hysterical–in both senses of the word–by their internal conflicts. Trump is a bump along that winding road. By contrast, the independent movement is here to stay.
Editor’s note: This article originally published on The Huffington Post on August 11, 2015, and has been slightly modified for publication on IVN.