Here's a somewhat bizarre and counter-intuitive question for us to ask, post-New York primary: Is there any way to give Donald Trump a graceful exit from the race?
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By that I mean, is there any way to get him out of Cleveland without giving him the nomination that doesn't end in a massive, party-splintering tantrum? Is there a scenario in which Trump arrives at the convention with the most delegates, is deprived of the nomination anyway, and yet ends his campaign on a conciliatory note?
Probably not! For one thing, his campaign insists that they'll win the 1,237 delegates they need before the convention, which they very well might. But it's worth thinking about, because this will soon be the biggest question facing Trump's foes, especially if he does worse than expected in next week's Acela primary in the Northeast states and/or loses Indiana on May 3rd.
On the face of it, it's hard to imagine what Trump could get out of a contested convention, short of the nomination, that would prevent him from claiming he was robbed. That he had it, he'd won it fairly, that he was the people's choice and the elites stole it away.
How do you get him to not say that? Is it possible? What sort of deal would he be amenable to, one that would not only get him out of the race, but to give the Republican nominee his blessing?
To indulge in a little amateur psychoanalysis here, the answer might be, what if Trump's concern is about his legacy? A guy who has spent his life erecting buildings and slapping his name on them probably always has one eye on immortality. What if he can be convinced that, when history looks back at him, he's better off leaving Cleveland as a gracious loser?
It's an interesting notion with some obvious problems. The first is that a normal consolation prize, such as the promise of an ambassadorship, is subject to approval by the Senate, a small club where Trump has few friends. The same thing would go for a cabinet post or any of the other sweet Washington gigs a President Cruz, Kasich, or Ryan could dole out. (He wouldn't be precluded from a czar appointment. Immigration Czar, or Trade Czar maybe)
The second is that Trump has shown zero indication that he's interested in any kind of Washington job, no matter how powerful it is. And of course, should a Republican be elected president next November, the last thing they'd want is Trump stomping around causing trouble.
Given everything we know about Trump, he'd be, at best, an unreliable ally or, if given the chance, a disloyal, attention-seeking shadow president looking to cause his boss as much trouble as possible. He's always been in charge, so even if he were willing to be someone's number two, what makes us think he has the skill set to take orders effectively?
Plus, it would seem that Trump has every incentive to not only claim that the nomination was "stolen" from him unjustly but sink the GOP's chances in the general. For the rest of his life, he'll insist that he would have won, that he would have beaten Hillary, and instead the elites and the party insiders sabotaged him via arcane parliamentary trickery. He loses, as all true populist fighters are fated to do, but leaves the ring on his feet -- you never got me down, Reince!
Short of the presidency, it would seem that this is the best outcome for Trump, one that solidifies his standing as a champion of the little guy without diminishing his longtime claim to being a winner. But what if -- strange as it may seem -- Trump tries to end his campaign in a classy way? What if, as he sometimes insists, he wants to be a "unifier" after all?
You can imagine people close to him, perhaps someone like his daughter Ivanka, pressing him to leave by taking the high road out. He extracts the most he can get out of the party -- the GOP treats him like a statesman for the rest of his life, roads and bridges and highways are named after him, he gets some kind of informal "global ambassador" role and the ability to negotiate trade agreements. He gets it all in writing, everything he can, and should the Republicans win in November he'll have more influence than any real estate developer in American history.
The upside for Trump in all this: a better legacy. Trump must know, on some level, that when the history books are written about this campaign, when the eggheads get together and write it all down, he's going to come out looking poorly, a demagogue who played to the worst aspects of our national character. There will be no bridges named after him, no government buildings. He can go and retreat to Mar-a-Lago and retain his aging fan base, but his legacy, in the minds of the people who decide such things, will be that of a schmuck.
So maybe -- just maybe -- Trump can be convinced that he can be a statesman in his last act, and that the best way to do that is to leave Cleveland like an adult. He'll avoid the prospect of a humiliating loss in November and surprise everyone with his maturity in the process. From there, he can begin reconciling with the various groups he's alienated over the past few months. He'll start "learning" and "evolving" and moderating every which way. He'll cop to saying some things he shouldn't have said and let the healing begin.
There's some precedent for this, a later-in-life power broker deciding to turn his reputation on its ear (admittedly no examples who were on the cusp of securing the presidential nomination of a major party). Alfred Nobel made a fortune selling dynamite before starting the Peace Prize that bears his name. Joseph Pulitzer published trashy newspapers. Andrew Carnegie, remembered best today as a major philanthropist, paid out slave wages and had striking workers shot.
So if they could cement positive legacies with a few noble acts, why can't Trump?
The short and most-likely answer: because he's Trump. He doesn't really think long term. Losing the nomination at a contested convention and burning down the GOP will look like the best deal to him once he gets to Cleveland, so he'll take it.