The Institutional Arsonist Turns on His Own Party

Donald Trump threatens to use his core skills—peddling conspiracy theories, spreading lies, sowing distrust—against the GOP.

Donald Trump
Mark Peterson / Redux

It’s begun to dawn on Republicans that they face a potentially catastrophic political problem: Donald Trump may lose the GOP presidential primary and, out of spite, wreck Republican prospects in 2024.

That unsettling realization broke through with the release of a Bulwark poll earlier this week. The survey found that a large majority of Republicans are ready to move on from Trump—but at the same time, more than a quarter of likely Republican voters are ready to follow Trump to a third-party bid. Two days after the poll results were released, Trump was asked in an interview whether, if he lost the nomination, he would support the GOP nominee. Trump answered, “It would have to depend on who the nominee was.” Translation: no.

In such a closely divided nation, a third-party campaign by Trump would cripple the GOP in 2024, because almost all of Trump’s votes would come from people who would otherwise vote Republican. In some key states—Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan—that could make all the difference. (In a handful of other states, “sore-loser laws” might bar Trump from the ballot.)

But even if Trump doesn’t run as a third-party candidate, he could ensure that Republican presidential and congressional candidates lose simply by criticizing them during the campaign, accusing the Republican Party of disloyalty, and signaling to his supporters that they should sit out the election. That course of action is more straightforward, and perhaps even likelier, than a third-party bid, but it would be just as devastating to Republican prospects.

If Trump does decide to sabotage his party’s chances in 2024, no one should be surprised. After all, Trump has flirted with third-party runs before, including in 2000, and he refused to rule out a third-party run in 2015. “In 2015, Donald wasn’t initially being taken seriously by the GOP as a potential candidate,” Michael Cohen, who was an attorney for Trump before turning on him, told Semafor. “His threat to run as a third party candidate was to ensure people knew of his intent and that he would have no problem with destroying the party if they stood in his way.”

Trump has no attachment to the Republican Party or, as best as one can tell, to anything or anyone else. His malignant narcissism prevents that. Trump is an institutional arsonist, peddling conspiracy theories, spreading lies, sowing distrust. That’s his skill, and he’s quite good at it. But Trump is now causing growing unease among his past supporters and the GOP establishment by signaling that he may very well turn that skill against their party. Trump, as a former president who won almost 75 million votes in 2020, could inflict tremendous harm on the GOP if he turns against it.

Earlier this week, an individual in the radio-talk-show world, who requested anonymity so he could speak candidly, told me, “Many listeners are starting to call and email with dread over the prospect of him running third-party. There is absolutely a growing chorus of opposition to Trump—coming from former Trump supporters. It’s unmistakable.” As Trump dials up his threat to break with the Republican Party, the anger is sure to rise. So, too, is the fear that, in the words of Trump’s former Attorney General Bill Barr, “Unless the rest of the party goes along with [Trump], he will burn the whole house down by leading ‘his people’ out of the GOP.”

When Trump was torching other institutions—America’s intelligence agencies, the FBI and the Department of Justice, the military, scientific agencies, the courts, Congress, media, those charged with overseeing our elections—Republicans cheered him on. They relished his attacks on the “deep state,” and they embraced his nihilistic ethic. That, in turn, gave rise to other public figures who share his tactics, and his ethic.

One example: Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene—who at various points in her career has embraced QAnon conspiracy theories, insisted that 9/11 was an inside job and that the mass killings at Sandy Hook and Parkland were staged, voiced support for executing prominent Democrats, attended white-nationalist rallies, and blamed wildfires on a Jewish space laser—has been elevated and showcased by House Republicans. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, who made it a top priority to defeat the estimable Liz Cheney, has developed a close bond with Greene, a strong advocate for McCarthy in his fight to win the speakership.

“I will never leave that woman,” The New York Times reported he told a friend. “I will always take care of her.”

A party with so many layers of rot won’t abandon Trump because he is a moral wreck and a constitutional threat; it will abandon him only when he’s deemed to be a surefire political loser. Which he almost certainly is. But in many ways, Trump has the whip hand. If Republicans turn on him, he is likely to turn on them, filled with the burning rage of a thousand suns. As MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough put it, “He was willing to take down American democracy when he lost. Why wouldn’t he be willing to take down [Glenn] Youngkin or [Ron] DeSantis or any other Republican that won the nomination over him?”

In the movie The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne struggles to understand why the Joker does the things he does. Alfred, Wayne’s trusted butler, describes a bandit in Burma who couldn’t be negotiated with. He destroyed for the sake of destroying. In Alfred’s words, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Donald Trump delights in watching the world burn. And now Republicans are belatedly discovering that their party, too, is part of that world.