Earlier this year, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and a maven of the religious right, compared Donald Trump to King David, the ancient Israelite hero, saying that both are “a man after God’s own heart.” Falwell’s comparison is outlandish, yes, but there is one Biblical champion that Trump resembles closely: the mighty hewn Samson. Like Trump, Samson was famous for his hair, fought against foreign domination of his nation, was quick to vengeful anger, and had a weakness for female beauty.
But for Republicans, there’s one aspect of the Samson analogy that should be particularly worrying. When Samson was captured by the Philistines, he pulled down the pillars of their temple, preferring to die while destroying his tormentors rather than live in captivity. If Trump feels trapped by his alliance with the Republican Party, he may very well unleash the Samson Option, going down in a glorious defeat that takes the GOP with him.
The Samson Option has emerged as a hypothetical scenario because the Republican National Committee is considering scissoring Trump’s purse strings. As Politico reported yesterday, “Publicly, Republican Party officials continue to stand by Donald Trump. Privately, at the highest levels, party leaders have started talking about cutting off support to Trump in October and redirecting cash to save endangered congressional majorities.” Chatter about a divorce has also been fueled by a letter from more than 70 Republican politicians and strategists calling on the RNC to abandon Trump and focus on down-ballot races.
While severing financial ties to Trump might make sense as triage for a party trying to save as many candidates as possible during an electoral slaughter, it carries a significant risk. Trump already has only minimal loyalty to the GOP. Unlike most politicians, he has no need for the party in his post-election career. He is in a position to wreak retribution on the party, destroying it from within if he feels betrayed.
From Trump’s point of view, the RNC jilting him would be seen as not just treason but also theft, since the party is raising money with his name. As Politico notes, “Trump himself declared Thursday that he’s doing more to boost the RNC’s coffers than the campaign is doing for him, and warned that he might back out of the joint fundraising arrangement.”
If he feels that the RNC is his enemy, and furthermore that he’s bound to lose, the Samson Option becomes viable. We got a glimpse of what the Samson Option would look like earlier in the campaign when Trump’s relationship with Republicans was fraying and he talked about withholding primary endorsements from Paul Ryan and John McCain. Of course, Trump and the RNC patched up their differences and he gave his endorsement anyway. But there’s nothing to stop Trump from repeating the exercise on a grand scale in the general election. If the Republican Party isn’t doing anything for him, why shouldn’t he tell his supporters not to vote GOP down-ballot?
In his final political act, Trump could combine self-defeat with defeat of the GOP as a whole, opening up all the party’s divisive wounds on the very eve of the election. The GOP’s betrayal would make it easier for him to say that the loss wasn’t his fault, instead caused by the very party that let him down and that he had to fight against. By falling out with the Republicans, Trump can lay the groundwork for a stabbed-in-the-back myth that will allow him to salvage his pride in defeat.
One ostensible flaw with the Samson analogy is that the Philistines were Samson’s enemies while the Republicans are part of Trump’s own party. But this misunderstands Trump’s relationship with the Republicans. From the start he’s been at war with the very party he now leads. He was happiest during the primaries when he was insulting Republican stalwarts like Jeb Bush. It’s striking that, although his foe is supposedly Hillary Clinton, he still seems most gleeful when talking about his victories over his Republican rivals, an aspect of his unlikely presidential campaign that he keeps returning to even though his task is now to unify the party.
Samson was a creature of vengeance. As he was blinded and held captive, he cried out, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes. Let me die with the Philistines!” Last fall, Trump uttered a wonderfully Samson-like sentiment about his rival Jeb Bush: “If I’m going down, then Bush is going down with me. He’s not going to be president of the United States.” Facing defeat in November, he could easily say, “Let me die with the Republican Party!”