The headline sounds like a Trump-ism and it probably resembles what Trump will say when he announces his run as an independent around July 2016. Here’s the thing, without a binding agreement, the pledge is nothing more than a great way for the GOP to earn media and for GOP chair Reince Priebus to look like he’s leading the party, but he’s missing a crucial element: Trump’s supporters aren’t necessarily ardent Republicans, they are just conservatives.
Confusing partisanship and ideology is fairly commonplace in American politics and it remains confusing for some studying political behavior at the graduate level. Yes, partisanship and ideology are closely related, with most liberals identifying as Democrats and most conservatives identifying as Republicans, but one’s ideology doesn’t mean they are “party people.” Yes, they may tell a pollster they are a “Republican,” but that may have more to do with their ideology lining up with one particular party than the strength of their partisanship. (Essentially, the Republicans better represent a conservative ideology, therefore a conservative identifies as a Republican.) Trump attract ideologues on the right. Conservatives who fully agree that we need to kick out the “illegals” and build a gigantic wall along both the Mexican AND Canadian borders don’t necessarily rock elephant lapel pins and pendants, but they do support the tea party and other movements associated with the Republican party, but more explicitly tied to the conservative ideology.
This is an important point for Priebus and other Republican bigwigs worried about the Trump-effect. Trump can sign the loyalty pledge now, in early-September 2015 when the stakes are high for both Trump and the Republican Party, but if Trump’s support among Republican party elites starts to wane, but his support among those identifying as very conservative remains high, the likelihood Trump bucks the pledge and runs as an independent strengthens.
It goes like this:
Somehow, someway, Jeb Bush winds his way through a difficult Republican primary season and manages to accrue enough delegates to capture the Republican nomination. As the primary season shifts into general election mode, Trump can continue to earn media, blasting Jeb for various reasons, hitting the same semi-racist tropes Trump spouts best. Trump can afford the best pollsters a candidate can buy and if he sees an opening, he’ll take it. If the numbers look good–especially among very conservatives–Trump may not be able to help himself and claim the Republican party remains out of touch with Americans and no one can “make America great again” the way Trump can.
If the pledge is not a binding contract, opening Trump up to legal action for running as an independent–and I highly doubt it is anything more than a publicity stunt–why won’t Trump keep running? For Trump, this isn’t about ensuring a Republican wins the White House. If it’s about anything, it’s an ideological battle–whatever his ideology truly is–and that operates outside the boundaries of the Republican or Democratic parties. The reason why outsider candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders continue attracting big crowds and growing support has to do with weak or independent partisans not exactly in love with the typical party candidates, be it Bush and Scott Walker for the GOP or Hillary Clinton for the Democrats. This is where party loyalty may actually do more harm than good. For a strong ideologue but weak partisan, it might be a sign of the party elite trying to control everything, rather than letting the candidates work for the people. Populism is a devil that party elites may forget and the pledge is nothing more than a silly piece of earned media crafted by the party elites.
Trump may very well abide by the pledge and this could all be for naught, but today’s earned media doesn’t mean squat come July 2016, when Trump may be itching to get back into the race. What’s Reince Priebus going to do? Kick Trump out of the party? That may only galvanize Trump to the tea party populists who may vote Republican, but despise the party system and party elites. They want to break the party and the party system. They see Trump as the man to break the system and they may follow the Donald straight into the gates of hell, dragging Reince Priebus and the modern Republican party with them.