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The Oath Keepers
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The Oath Keepers

On the GOP’s increasingly sinister loyalty pledge.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd on June 2, 2023, in Gilbert, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Readers too young to remember the Before Times may find the following hard to believe, but I swear it’s true.

Back in the day, Republican presidential candidates weren’t asked to formally pledge their support for the party’s nominee in advance.

There was no need. It went without saying that contenders who disliked each other would set aside their differences in the end for the good of the country and support the winner of the primary. Any Republican president would govern more conservatively than any Democrat would, therefore any Republican nominee was worth endorsing in the general election.

In the After Times, what’s best for the country in the general election is … less clear-cut. 

And so, not coincidentally, the After Times are when the RNC began pushing loyalty pledges on primary candidates.

In the past week three different Republican contenders have chafed at having to commit to endorsing the GOP nominee, keenly aware of who that nominee is likely to be. Their reasons for doing so differ, as does their thinking on whether to sign the pledge anyway knowing that the RNC intends to bar those who refuse from the GOP primary debates.

But the fact that so many are struggling with the prospect of supporting Trump again highlights an ominous evolution in the nature of the process since 2016. During that cycle, the pledge aimed to bind a plainly unfit demagogue to support the Republican Party in the general election.

In this cycle, it aims to do the opposite.

The RNC had a problem in the fall of 2015. A celebrity candidate, running on a lark, was leading the party’s presidential primary polls.

He wasn’t terribly far ahead, fortunately. Surely, surely, he would implode in due course the same way populist flashes-in-the-pan like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann did in the previous cycle. Tea Party Republicans were too serious about small-government conservatism to hand the nomination to a not-very-conservative nationalist circus act.

But although he was doomed to collapse before Iowa as voters got serious about the race, the following he’d built in the early going seemed very devoted to him. Devoted enough to potentially tank the party’s chances in the general election if their hero decided he couldn’t back a dogmatically conservative Republican nominee like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz.

So the RNC approached him—and the rest of the primary field—with a request that they commit to supporting the winner of the primary in advance. “I [name] affirm that if I do not win the 2016 Republican nomination for president of the United States I will endorse the 2016 Republican presidential nominee regardless of who it is,” the pledge read. “I further pledge that I will not seek to run as an independent or write-in candidate nor will I seek or accept the nomination for president of any other party.”

Every candidate was asked to sign it and ultimately every candidate did, but it was clearly designed to bind one person in particular. There was no risk of, say, Lindsey Graham going off and mounting a gangbusters third-party candidacy if he flamed out in the primary.

The idea of Donald Trump keeping a promise because he signed a piece of paper pledging to do so must have seemed very funny at the time to building contractors in the tri-state area. True to form, he abandoned the pledge in early 2016. But the RNC had done what little it could to nudge his fans toward unifying behind one of his opponents in the general election if their guy fell short in the primary. Even if Trump himself didn’t take the pledge seriously, maybe some of his voters would.

Eight years later, the point of the pledge has changed. It’s no longer a device to pressure an illiberal populist into supporting a traditional conservative. It’s a device to pressure traditional conservatives into supporting an illiberal populist.

One might think that a party that long ago devolved into a cult of personality wouldn’t need to bother with such formalities. The cult’s mission, after all, is to inculcate an ethic of absolute loyalty to the cult leader. Insofar as there’s any resistance to that ethic among reliable Republican partisans, relentless catastrophism about Democratic rule like the “Flight 93” argle-bargle should bring them around by Election Day in theory, pledge or no pledge.

But again, the RNC has a problem. The margin of victory in hotly contested elections has grown so narrow in modern America that even just a few Republican leaners suffering a crisis of conscience are enough to tilt races to the Democrats, which probably accounts for why the “red wave” that was expected last fall turned into a red trickle. Meanwhile, Trump continues to give ambivalent right-wingers compelling new reasons to abandon him. If you’re a Republican who’s somehow still wrestling in 2023 with whether he’s fit to be president, those 37 felony counts that the Justice Department just dropped on him gave you something more to think about.

The party desperately needs to hold onto every wavering voter it has. Getting non-Trump candidates to sign a loyalty pledge, signaling to supporters that he’s more fit to be president than Joe Biden is, is another preemptive nudge toward party unity in the general election a la 2016. The difference this time is that the people being nudged to lay their misgivings aside and play ball are those with a civic conscience, not those without one, a neat microcosm of how the GOP has degenerated morally under Trump’s leadership.

A Republican presidential candidate who wants to participate in the debates but doesn’t want to vow allegiance to a former and maybe future coup-plotter faces a dilemma, then. What should they do about the pledge the RNC has foisted on them?

There are three approaches. One is an honorable refusal: A person of integrity cannot and will not make a promise that he can’t keep in good conscience, even if declining to do so costs him something important.

Last night the newest candidate in the Republican race was asked whether he’ll sign the RNC’s loyalty pledge as a condition of joining the debates. Nope, said Will Hurd

“I won’t be signing any kind of pledges, and I don’t think parties should be trying to rig who should be on a debate stage,” he told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins Thursday evening.

“I am not in the business of lying to the American people in order to get a microphone, and I’m not going to support Donald Trump. And so I can’t honestly say I’m going to sign something even if he may or may not be the nominee,” he added.

I’ve taken one pledge, one oath, and one vow, he added—the pledge of allegiance, an oath to defend the Constitution, and a vow at the altar to his wife. He won’t add another by promising to support a man who “100 percent” betrayed the country through his misconduct with classified material.

Hurd was unlikely to qualify for the debates to begin with. Never Trumper Asa Hutchinson stands a better chance, but he too has moral qualms about committing to a criminal as nominee. His campaign reached out to the RNC recently to see if the pledge might at least be amended to say that it won’t apply if Trump ends up being convicted of a felony before Election Day 2024.

You can guess what the answer was.

It was silly of Hutchinson to ask, really, since the point of the pledge is to pressure leery Republicans into sticking with Trump no matter how morally and legally compromised he becomes. “Candidates who are complaining about this to the press should seriously reconsider their priorities and whether they should even be running,” an RNC adviser told Politico when asked about Hutchinson’s request, confirming that party leaders now treat misgivings about endorsing a convicted felon as more disqualifying in a candidate than actually being convicted of a felony is.

The second approach to the pledge comes from Chris Christie, who shares Hurd’s and Hutchinson’s moral objections to Trump (very belatedly) but who takes issue with an additional element of being asked to show loyalty to the nominee. Why should the rest of the field be expected to make and keep a promise that Donald Trump himself has no intention of making or keeping?

Trump’s former press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, interviewed RNC chief Ronna McDaniel for Fox News on Thursday night and echoed Christie’s point. “Trump, I don’t think you’ll ever get him to sign that pledge,” McEnany said, incorrectly. Her old boss will sign the pledge, I expect, probably eagerly considering that it’s designed to unite the rest of the party behind him in this cycle rather than vice versa. But he surely won’t honor it if he ends up losing the primary. And not one of his opponents believes that he will.

Christie’s position, signing the pledge and then ignoring it, amounts to adopting Trump’s own position in order to highlight the RNC’s obsequious willingness to overlook Trump’s misconduct. He’s positioned himself in the race as the “emperor’s new clothes” candidate, the guy who’ll call B.S. on the cult and its leader—by name—even when no one else will. He did it again on Friday morning as I was writing this newsletter, using his appearance before the Faith & Freedom Coalition to confront the audience over Trump’s lack of character.

Unlike Hurd, he’s not too honorable to lie about the pledge to get what he wants, a spot on the debate stage. He’s playing by Trump’s rules.

Which brings us to the third approach being used by Republicans to question the pledge. Unlike Christie, Hutchinson, and Hurd, this guy isn’t running as an old-school Republican hoping to end the influence of Trumpism over the party. To the contrary.

But also unlike Christie, Hutchinson, and Hurd, he’s taken a lot of abuse from Donald Trump lately. Go figure that he’s in no mood to pledge his troth unto eternity to a guy who’s been smearing him and his record as governor hourly for the past four months.

DeSantis isn’t mad at being asked to do something that Trump won’t or at having to support an accused felon. He’s mad that he’s being asked to affirm that his opponent is worth backing next year, warts and all, in the midst of fending off endless false, cutthroat attacks from him. “DeSantis is of course right to be angry about Trump,” Jonah Goldberg tweeted last night. “He’s also right on the facts [about his COVID record]. But I just wish more people got angry earlier about Trump’s lies and idiocy when they weren’t personally implicated or aggrieved by them.”

If Hurd is the candidate of honorable refusal and Christie the candidate of street-fighting by Trump’s own rules, DeSantis is the candidate of self-interested strategic ambiguity. He never says in the clip that he won’t take the pledge to support the nominee. He will take it, assuredly, as he hinted in a separate campaign appearance on Thursday night. (“Here’s what I said, I said: ‘You run this process. You compete and you respect the outcome of the process.’ And I’ve always said that. … No matter what happens, I’m going to work to beat Joe Biden.”) And he’ll abide by it too, not because he’s too honorable to renege but because he knows what would happen to his national ambitions in 2028 if he refused to back the GOP nominee next year.

But given the chance by a reporter’s question to affirm that his tormentor is worth supporting in the general election, he passed. That’s noteworthy as a sign of how deep his resentment of Trump runs and, more importantly, how deep it might run among his most enthusiastic fans. For all the hype about Trump voters boycotting the election if DeSantis is the nominee, some of the governor’s voters are destined to do the same if Trump prevails. And the more vicious and mendacious his attacks on their candidate are, the more of them willing to hold a grudge there are apt to be.

If the point of the pledge is to bind the party’s Trump-fatigued bloc to a nominee they disdain, having his only credible opponent ducking questions about it isn’t a great sign for the RNC.

I wonder if pledge fever won’t backfire in the end by inadvertently reminding Republican voters just how hard it’s gotten to support Trump on the merits.

Take, for example, Vivek Ramaswamy’s grandstanding demand that all Republican candidates promise to pardon the frontrunner if elected president. If the federal case against him were as weak as Trump would like everyone to believe, pardoning him wouldn’t be a difficult moral or political litmus test to pass. It wouldn’t require any sweaty “WILL YOU PROMISE?” ultimatums from a guy polling at 2 percent who’s desperate for camera time.

It’s because the case against Trump isn’t weak that the subject of a pardon is a matter of contention.

The same goes for the RNC’s endorsement pledge. What does it say about a candidate’s fitness for office that his party feels obliged to use its leverage to contractually bind his opponents to support him against an unpopular Democrat?

It will not be helpful to the Republican effort next fall if news cycles are devoted to people who signed an unenforceable document pledging their vote to a depraved authoritarian and then started declaring that they can’t vote for him in good conscience after all. “He’s an accused felon with a half-dozen personality disorders who tried to stage a coup,” the Christies, Hutchinsons, and Hurds will say. “BUT YOU PROMISED,” will come the reply.

Think swing voters will find “a promise is a promise” to be a compelling counterargument?

The pledge saga reveals a simple truth about the nature of the Republican Party after eight years of Trump: That even (or especially) in its internal workings it reflects the oft-quoted belief that “there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” In 2023 the loyalty pledge protects Trump but doesn’t bind him; he’ll pay little price politically if he reneges on it during the primary, just as he did in 2016. For DeSantis and the rest, however, the pledge binds them without protecting them by guaranteeing them Trump’s support. If they were to renege, they’d spend the rest of their careers being reminded that their treachery renders them forever untrustworthy.

But that’s really just a long way of saying that the GOP remains two parties under one banner, Trumpers and everyone else, and only one of those parties would rather see the other govern the country instead of Democrats. The RNC’s pledge betrays some anxiety that that one-sided hostage crisis, now beginning its ninth year, might at last be ending. Here’s hoping.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.