For the last year, every reasonable forecast of the Republican race included a proviso that Donald Trump, despite a strong early showing, wouldn’t win the nomination. (That includes me.) Yet it is seeming more and more plausible that Mr. Trump will, in fact, be the Republican nominee for the Presidency. The GOP establishment, or what’s left of it, is reeling – they’re also trying to rewrite history and their place within it.
Recently, Stuart Stevens (who was a top strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign) authored a piece for the New York Times reflecting on his party’s leftward swing. To outsiders worried about the prospect of either the xenophobic and belligerent Donald Trump or the Bible-thumper Ted Cruz winning the party’s endorsement, that line of reasoning might come across as a bit daft. But to Mr. Stevens, Donald Trump doesn’t count as a real conservative – Trump has, after all, been opposed by (gasp!) the National Review.
The argument exposes a dangerous misunderstanding at the heart of the Republican intelligentsia: for years, they have been telling themselves that their brand of conservatism defines the party, while the pyrotechnics of talk radio and voters’ rallies are little more than window dressing. Believing that they stand at the heart of the movement and that their party is committed to their political agenda – cut taxes for big business, cut spending on social welfare and infrastructure, and double-down on free trade – they have neglected to actually argue their positions and they have indulged the unsavory underbelly of the Republican zeitgeist. Now they’ve lost control of the conversation.
Mr. Trump’s campaign has made many things explicit that had up until now remained widely understood but little discussed. For decades, the Republican party has had what you might refer to as an ‘uneasy’ relationship with the topic of race. To put it bluntly, their voter base is disproportionately white (nothing wrong with that) and too often comprised of people who are, in a word, racist (that is a problem). Their candidates have recognized this and have, at times, appealed to their voters on the basis of this knowledge. That is mostly how, with the cooperation of some Democrats, the term ‘welfare’ became a euphemism for government aid given to black and brown people while programs like Social Security and Medicare were somehow cordoned off in the conversation.
Donald Trump has taken a more direct route: he simply calls Mexicans rapists and argues that people should be categorically kept out of the country on the basis of their religion. He’s shocked that we’re even talking about whether or not to waterboard suspected terrorists (he thinks it’s obvious that we should and his son doesn’t think it’s any worse than what happens at college fraternities every weekend). Where other candidates have, in the past, made sly appeals to retrograde views on gender, Donald Trump publicly attacked a prominent conservative personality, Megyn Kelly, by suggesting that she was menstruating.
The fact that the Republican establishment expresses surprise that none of these ‘gaffes’ have hurt Mr. Trump is evidence that they have lost touch with their own voters. The establishment overestimates the average voters’ appreciation for nuance. Voters at Trump rallies regularly tell reporters that they like that Mr. Trump speaks his mind. We might take that to mean that he speaks their minds as well. It turns out that when Republican candidates appealed to their base by hinting at racial animus, they were mostly doing it for their own benefit. They could have, as Mr. Trump has done, just come out and have said it.
(I’ll leave the reader to decide what conclusions to draw from the fact that the Donald has questioned the Presidential eligibility of Barack Obama, Ted Cruz, and, now, Marco Rubio.)
Mr. Trump’s success also highlights two more things.
First, while we all knew how much voters seem to dislike politicians in general, and the other party’s politicians in particular, it has come as a genuine surprise to see how much Republican voters seem to despise their own elected officials. The abuses Mr. Trump has heaped on Republican figures – most vividly, his attacks on John McCain on the basis that Mr. McCain was captured in Vietnam – have been received by Republican voters with either indifference or applause. In contrast to the Democrats, who criticize but still seem to think fondly of their former Presidents and candidates, there appear to be no beloved figures left in the Republican establishment.
Second, Mr. Trump (and every bit as much, Mr. Cruz) are giving an object lesson in the value of self-discipline. At every turn in the political calendar, Republicans have benefited from condemning their opposition in the harshest possible terms and from encouraging conspiratorial thinking. As a result, they’ve lost the ability to rebuke members of their own party who go too far. (They’ve all but made the concept of going too far irrelevant. Mr. Cruz says he’ll make the desert sand in the Middle East glow from all the bombings.) They’ve also trained their voters to be receptive to the sort of invective that has characterized the 2016 race so far. (Democrats applauding Bernie Sanders’ more colorful language risk going down the same road, but it would take a long, long time. After all, they’re just getting started.)
I don’t know if Donald Trump will win the nomination. If he does win it, I don’t know if he can prevail in a general election. But it seems very possible that the Republican establishment will be left watching their party take back the White House (or lose their bid) with a candidate (whether it’s Trump or Cruz) that has built their campaign around destroying their influence over the party. If that happens, they will have no one to blame but themselves.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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