A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too."
The Republican Frogs have reached the water, and waiting there for them are two scorpions, a large one with an unusual yellow head, and a smaller one, looking somewhat like a funeral director, his tail partially covered by his black jacket. The frogs quickly huddle together to decide a plan of action—do they hop for the hills, offer up ritual sacrifices to the Frog-Gods, or just let one of the gruesome things climb on and hope for the best?
They got here because of an understandable but remarkably bad series of choices made by the GOP, going back to Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. Party leadership decided a change of direction was needed. First, tinker with the rules to encourage early consensus. Second, deal with demographic changes going on in the country by offering a more welcoming face to minorities—particularly Latino ones. Finally, reduce the unattractive noise in the nominating process by holding fewer debates, with more sympathetic moderators and more supportive audiences. Burnish the brand.
You can certainly see the logic of this, especially when you add in the ostensible deepness of the GOP bench and the immense but quiet influence of limitless money. The thinking was the public would see a parade of successful Governors with gravitas, rising stars, the face of youth and diversity, and new ideas—the appearance of both quality, and an open process. Back that up behind the scenes with cold cash, infrastructure, influential state politicians able to endorse and offer their own political machines to create inevitability and the aura of electability. While you couldn’t predict the actual nominee you at least knew what the range of outcomes would be.
The party knew it had two distinct wings, the mainstream right and the hard right. Their conflict would be resolved through the system, with the slight edge to the hard right at the onset, given the number of conservative southern states that were at the front of the primary/caucus queue, then moving to territory that was more favorable to mainstream candidates. Find a solid conservative early on, hopefully someone not too controversial, and that person would gain strength and an air of inevitability. Even the possibility of a “fringier” candidate winning a few outlier states, and being divisive at the Convention (see, Pat Buchanan, 1992) was taken care of by Rule 40, which required that a candidate win at least eight states in order to have their name placed in nomination.
It all made perfect sense, because the Republican leadership thought they knew Republicans. Apparently, they didn’t. There aren’t two wings of the Republican Party—there are actually three—mainstream right, hard-right, and populist right. The error was the expectation that the populists were really just hard-right, and therefore already represented. Better expressed, the GOP assumed that Conservatism was a largely fixed concept, all Republicans were basically conservative and shared the same goals, and the arguments were over approach—tactics and degree of confrontation, and not substance.
In effect, the GOP was still thinking of the Reagan model—business interests get what they want, social conservatives get what they want, and whatever awkwardness there might be between the two groups is subsumed by success, and by the popularity of the man in the White House. Old-fashioned and out of date? Maybe, but, understandable when you look at George W. Bush’s Presidency. While he couldn’t match Reagan for general popularity, intra-party, he provided the same bridge between the sides.
What few were paying attention to were the growing number of people “under” that bridge—the group of populists who really didn’t fit into the ideological silo because their priorities weren’t being met. No one was really helping these people on the economic and cultural issues that mattered to them. The 2016 roster of Republican candidates, for all their supposed talents, gave the same speeches that could have been given a decade ago, effectively promising more of the same—no real answers, and therefor no place at the table for the populists.
Up steps Donald Trump. First, he’s a huge celebrity, and, because of it, he is able to jump both the money issue and most of the institutional barriers the GOP had put in place. Second, Trump perfectly represents the anti-politician in an age where politicians are detested. This is more than just “not being part of Washington.” Trump tells his supporters, in effect, “look at those guys—nice suits, fancy words, but what have they really done in their lives? Nothing—they are all professional politicians. I buy and sell people like that every day. Stick with me—maybe my words aren’t as pretty as theirs, my accent seems strange, but you and I speak the same language. I’ll never talk down to you. And my success will be your success.”
As potent as the Trump message was, the initial institutional reaction to Trump was initially unbelieving bemusement. Most of the rest of the field continued to fight amongst each other, assuming that Trump’s candidacy was the equivalent of vanity publishing. Sooner or later, his polls would drop, he would tire of it, declare victory, and go home. When this didn’t happen, the Establishment, and the conservative media reacted by pointing out the obvious—that Trump wasn’t a “true” Republican and surely not a “true” conservative.
Republicans are right—Trump isn’t one of them—and he’s certainly not a “true” conservative—if you define those terms strictly as they define them. But what they missed—and continue to miss, is that Trump’s supporters don’t value those qualities. They have had a bellyful of “true” conservative ideas, and they haven’t helped their lives one bit. Talk doesn’t fix the transmission of the truck when it’s slipping. Trump, on the other hand, might not be perfect, maybe they disagree with him on some things, maybe he’s a little crazy, but, if you are headed to a knife-fight with the real world, do you want The Donald, or an Action Figure “True” Republican (with three outfits!) to take along? The answer for many is a little less theoretical polish and a little more brass-knuckled punch.
In their desperation, much of GOP has turned to openly scheming about fixing the convention, a blizzard of negative ads, and a creepy new-found affinity for the arachnoid Ted Cruz. It could work—Trump probably won’t get enough delegates to clinch prior to Cleveland, and the GOP Establishment is leaning hard on Kasich to get out.
But, even if Trump can be stopped, what of Trump’s supporters? Given the size of his voting bloc, the GOP needs them to put aside their loyalty and their peculiar desire to vote in their self-interest and instead focus on Obama and Hillary-hating. Just go along, one more time.
And, if he gets the nomination, what then? How much support will he get from the GOP, what type of a show will Cleveland look like, and will down-ballot candidates go their own way?
All unknowns. I suspect that secretly, many in the GOP hope for a brokered convention in which neither Trump nor Cruz collects nearly enough delegates, Trump is graceful, and a consensus candidate emerges. Even if they lose, it’s just another election, and they can try again in 2020.
But, right now, the frogs have gathered at bank, and the two scorpions are looking for a lift.
Remember the scorpion's nature, and pick your poison.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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