In less than two hours ten Republicans—all men—will take the stage for the first Republican presidential debate of the 2016 cycle. These ten were selected from a field of no less than seventeen candidates by Fox News based on a selection of five of the last six national polls. Tonight’s contest is eagerly anticipated, mostly by Democrats who are curious about how multi-billionaire businessman Donald Trump will fare against a field of mostly professional politicians.
Trump’s entry into the race was widely dismissed by the professional pundit class who predicted that some gaffe would sink Trump’s campaign long before we arrived at this moment. Except it didn’t happen that way at all. At all.
The gaffes were there, that much is certain. In his announcement speech, Trump specifically targeted Mexican immigrants, accusing them of being mostly criminals with a few good people sprinkled in. Trump faced scathing reactions from the media, but his numbers climbed among the Republican base.
Next, Trump belittled the war record of Senator John McCain, implying that McCain really wasn’t a hero because all he’d done in the Vietnam War was to get captured. The media pundits were certain that this would be the end for Trump; they were certain that insulting a war hero was sure to be fatal to Trump’s campaign, except it wasn’t. Apparently our nation’s political punditry has forgotten about the Swift-boating of John Kerry. In fact, American conservatives are happy to denigrate the service of American veterans with whom they have political differences, and the Tea Party base of the Republican Party parted ways with John McCain long ago. Far from hurting Trump, his comments about McCain rallied more of the Tea Party base to his side, and Trump goes into tonight’s contest with a double-digit lead over his nearest rival—some guy named “Jeb!” I think (I can’t remember his last name).
So how do I rate Donald Trump’s chances? Higher than you might expect, and certainly higher than the professional punditry. Why? It’s because of a concept called “the Tragedy of the Commons.” Originated by Garrett Hardin, the Tragedy of the Commons describes a situation in which a group of individuals are acting independently of each other in rational pursuit of their own self-interests, but as a result the common interests of the group as a whole are harmed.
Every one of the Republicans taking the stage tonight are acting in what they consider their own best interests. Some are genuinely interested in becoming President of the United States. Some just want fame so they can sell books or get jobs on Fox News as commentators. Some want to be chosen as Vice President or perhaps a cabinet post. Running for President is a rational way for all of them to achieve these individual interests.
But the men running for the Republican nomination for 2016 aren’t merely individuals; they are also part of a larger group—the Republican Party—and their actions as individuals could adversely impact the interests of that group. If the Republican Party chooses Donald Trump as its candidate for 2016, it will probably lose the 2016 general election to the Democratic nominee. If the Republican Party angers Donald Trump and he runs as a third party independent, the Republican Party will probably lose the 2016 general election to the Democratic nominee. Either way, the Republican Party loses in 2016.
The Republican Party finds itself it what could be a very difficult situation to escape. If Trump is offended, he could run as an independent, so driving Trump out of the Republican primary contest by attacking him could backfire in a big way.
What the Republican Party needs right now, ironically, is for its other candidates to behave altruistically and give up the pursuit of their own selfish goals in order to promote the good of the Republican Party as a whole. If enough marginal candidates withdrew and threw their support behind a moderate candidate with a real chance of defeating the Democratic nominee, Trump might simply find himself out-voted during the Republican primaries and caucuses in early 2016. If defeated, but not disrespected, Trump might withdraw from the 2016 race altogether.
But obtaining altruistic self-sacrifice from a cadre of candidates indoctrinated in the ideology of Ayn Rand is probably more than the Republican establishment has a right to expect. Most of the Republican field seems unwilling to find honest employment. Many are out of political office, or soon will be. These candidates want the perks that go with extended candidacies and the job prospects that will come in the wake of the campaign. Many of these candidates have financial backers with deep pockets and little incentive to hop off the gravy train. Quitting early means giving up the limelight and a loss of future earning potential, something few of these candidates are willing to sacrifice. Some may be building support for a run in 2020.
Tonight’s debate is the beginning of the process whereby the Republican Party attempts to extricate itself more than two decades of fractious decline towards the far right. Will enough of the Republican field exit in time for a more moderate establishment candidate to emerge from the field and defeat Trump without disrespecting him? Only time will tell.