Why Blame for 2016 Outcome Matters More Than the Election (Almost)

A Trump loss has to be interpreted as a clear rejection of Trump-ism, without asterisks

Despite a weekend of negative press, Donald Trump shows no sign of backtracking on his recent comments. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Despite a weekend of negative press, Donald Trump shows no sign of backtracking on his recent comments. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 11, 2016 at 5:00am

In the 1992 film, A Few Good Men, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) observes that jury trials are always about “assigning blame.” As Donald Trump and his loyalists begin to lay the groundwork to advance a “stabbed in the back” myth to pre-frame a November loss, I can’t help thinking the same is true in politics.

Trump’s exit strategy is not only meant to absolve those who boosted Trump, but also to preemptively assign blame to the Never Trump movement for President Hillary Clinton’s future crimes.

Evidence of this strategy has come from one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, Sean Hannity, as well as from the candidate, himself, who warned the election could be “rigged.”

Now, when you and I hear that loaded term, we probably assume he means voter fraud, ballot stuffing, etc. And, indeed, Trump and his allies have suggested this is precisely what they fear.

[Trump Needs to Follow RNC Rules]

But a “rigged” election could also mean something else. During the Republican primary, Trump used the same term to suggest that Republican Party insiders might conspire to use parliamentary tricks and obscure rules to outmaneuver him in the delegate hunt. It’s not absurd to think the “stabbed in the back” narrative might reemerge to explain his general election loss.

If the goal is to find a scapegoat to blame for his November loss, it seems entirely possible that this is precisely the kind of conspiracy theory that Trump’s supporters would benefit most from advancing.

Think of it — if you are a conservative talk radio host who backed Trump, would you benefit more from suggesting Hillary Clinton stuffed ballots, or from suggesting that establishment Republicans (aka “GOPe”) intentionally sabotaged the Republican nominee?

I think the latter.

Enter Evan McMullin — a former CIA agent who as already missed the deadlines to appear on about half of the state ballots. Trump has always underperformed in western states, and McMullin — who is LDS and was born in Utah — seems likely to focus on this region.

[Evan McMullin Says He’s Not a Trump Spoiler]

Here’s the problem: What happens if McMullin wins, say, 5 percent of the vote in Utah and Arizona and Trump loses both states to Hillary by three points? And what if this is a determining factor in Clinton’s capturing 270 electoral votes? It may not be the most likely scenario, but, as the Guardian noted, McMullin “could have the kind of spoiler effect that helps to deny the Republican nominee the presidency.”

Should this occur, would it not only be plausible, but also fair, for Trump’s supporters to blame the Never Trump movement for Clinton’s election?

While it might sound childish or pedantic to worry about how a presidential loss is framed, this year, the campaign after the campaign might be almost as crucial as the election, itself. Just as the stories we tell ourselves about the past influence our future, the lessons derived from this race could be the difference between a Republican Party that turns the corner, and a party doomed to repeat the same mistakes over again.

The Never Trump movement has noble motives, but they need Trump’s loss to be interpreted as a clear rejection of Trump-ism. There can be no asterisks. The danger is that Evan McMullin’s interference in this process could have unintended consequences.

The 2016 campaign isn’t just about electing a president, it’s all about assigning blame.

Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @MattKLewis.