No third-party candidate has ever won the presidency, but some have been disruptive enough to cause considerable consternation for the other parties. Famously, in 1992, Ross Perot had the best popular vote showing as an independent, winning 18.9 percent but no electoral votes. More closely aligned with Republicans than Democrats, he is regularly blamed -- or credited -- with George H.W. Bush's loss to Bill Clinton.
Another memorable election was 1856, when the Whigs disintegrated and two new parties formed to compete against the Democrats. One was the Republican Party, and the other was the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party, better known as the "Know Nothing" movement. Their candidate, Millard Fillmore, finished third to the Republicans' John C. Fremont and the eventual winner, Democrat James Buchanan.
It's this calculus that understandably has Republicans worried that Donald Trump, currently the Republican frontrunner, will decide to jump ship and run as an independent -- or more likely, as the first candidate of the newly formed "Trump Party" (copyright pending).
If he does, he'll most likely pull enough votes away from Republicans to ensure a Democratic victory.
That prospect may have the Republican National Committee and Republican strategists biting their nails down to the quick, but as a conservative who would very much like to see a Republican win the White House again in the future, I'm increasingly thinking this is the best thing for the party, even if it means a certain victory for Democrats.
To be clear, Hillary Clinton is an equally terrifying prospect. But if Trump wins the nomination and runs as a Republican, we'll have Democrats like Clinton in the White House for the next 50 years.
Trump actually is leading a modern-day "Know Nothing" movement. His anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hatemongering are at least out of the 1850s if not the Middle Ages, and it has no place in today's Republican Party. His ideas are usually unconstitutional, un-American or un-conservative -- and very often an alarming hat trick of all three. Whatever group he claims to represent should have to embrace his dimwitted and divisive proposals without the imprimatur of the Republican Party or the conservative movement. And Republicans shouldn't have to defend religious tests, internment camps or Eisenhower's "Operation Wetback" just because Trump and his goon surrogates do.
Democrats are convincingly using Trump to paint the entire Republican Party as racist, xenophobic and misogynistic. The damage Trump has already done to the Republican brand is immeasurable. A Republican nomination would be disastrous for years to come.
But it's not just the Republican brand he is shredding to smithereens. It's also America's. His suggestion that we ban Muslims from entering the country obviously didn't go over well with our Arab allies, but it didn't go over well with our European ones either.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who rarely comments on U.S. presidential candidates, condemned the remarks as "divisive, unhelpful and quite simply wrong." A petition in Britain to ban Trump has earned 300,000 signatures. From France to Germany, his rhetoric received swift rebuke.
Most chilling, in Israel Trump earned comparisons to Hitler. "For some Jews," wrote Chemi Shalev in Haaretz, "the sight of thousands of supporters waving their fists in anger as Trump incided against Muslims ... could have evoked associations with beer halls in Munich a century ago." A German headline read "How Donald Trump is Betraying America."
For years Republicans have rightly bemoaned President Obama's weakening of America's standing abroad. Trump's boneheaded bombast is not the answer.
There's another good reason to hope Trump runs as an independent. It would finally give our Republican candidates a chance to be heard. Whether it's Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina or Chris Christie, the other contenders have some smart, practical and, most importantly, conservative ideas to solve the country's biggest problems. Wouldn't you like to hear some of them?
Just imagine a debate between Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, for example. I bet Rubio would actually look pretty great next to those two. So would Christie. Or Fiorina. At the very least, in those cases there would be an actual Republican on the stage representing conservative values, instead of a charlatan carnival barker pretending to.
After I have floated this idea publicly, some have suggested that ceding the White House to the Democrats to save the Republican Party from Trump means I'm now supporting Hillary Clinton. That's nonsense. Obviously, I and millions of other Republicans would support the Republican nominee.
But Donald Trump's near-nihilistic determination to destroy the Republican Party shouldn't get any more help from Republicans. I know it's a painful prospect -- but we may have to lose this one to ever win again.