The barbarian is at the gate. Donald Trump is ready to seize control of the Republican Party.
When he first entered he was seen by the “wise men” of the Party as a novelty act who would fade. That made some sense, when you consider the brief blooms of Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann in 2012 and even Ben Carson in 2016. The thinking was, Donald was a perpetual gaffe machine, he would grow tired of it, and when his numbers began to drop (as, it was assumed, they must) he would look for a way to declare victory on the issues, throw his weight around a little, and return to his business.
But, he endured, and, for whatever reason, the GOP Establishment kept to its preconceptions. He still didn’t look like their idea of a President, and didn’t act like a President, so he wasn’t going to be a President.
Then, some surprising things began to happen. The herd started to thin early—Rick Perry was the first one, back in September, followed quickly by a thunderclap—Scott Walker, who was a top seed early on. These were seen at the time as largely tactical “not-my-year” moves.
The thinking about Trump began to get a little bipolar. Trump was utterly improbable, but something was happening. Ted Cruz was the first to recognize this, and decided to run slip-stream behind Trump in the “angry outsider” contest. In the debates, he avoided taking Trump on and was in turn rewarded when Trump started chewing on Jeb. The dirty little secret was the rest of the GOP candidates were secretly thrilled. Trump might be sucking up all the air, but Jeb’s candidacy was sucking up most of the money and the Establishment loyalty. Trump had shrewdly picked exactly the right victim, and the others stood by.
New Hampshire had several surprises and, although it couldn’t have been known at the time, may have had the most consequential feud in the entire race. Chris Christie, having rescued himself from the “Kiddie Table” with a strong performance, and having gained the endorsement of the Manchester Union-Leader, was finally gaining some traction—until Friends of Marco bombed him with negative ads. Christie’s polling numbers tanked and he angrily confronted and damaged Rubio in the debate before the primary. For Trump, who won New Hampshire outright by a convincing margin, this was a great gift. First, Christie had shown that Rubio could be rattled in a debate—even infantilized—a lesson that Trump would put to good use when it was Marco’s turn in the shooting gallery. But maybe just as importantly, the end of Christie’s campaign (he suspended shortly after) took out the one candidate who might have competed with Trump for Trump’s emerging coalition of voters.
By the time Trump took out Bush in South Carolina, the Establishment was in full-bore panic. Virtually every day some luminary was pronouncing his or her shock and disgust of Trumpism. But the same monumental misjudgments continued. They still believed that every single non-Trump vote was a one-for-one equivalent of a vote for any generic opponent, and if they could just herd the cats, Trump could be stopped. Republican contenders became like a collapsing umbrella—each one was force-folded into the other until we were left with the detested Cruz and the vaguely shambolic Kasich. And then, with a puff of smoke, they were gone, yet even yesterday, the capacity for self-delusion remained unlimited—Cruz hinted he would get back in if he won Nebraska (he was then crushed by a 3-1 margin.) Trump’s ceiling, apparently, is like a mirage in the desert—and the oasis is always just out of reach.
What fascinates me the most about this is the disdain that many in the Republican Party have not just for Trump, but for Trump’s voters. This doesn’t mean they aren’t counting on them to troop to the polls in November to slay the hated Hillary, but, on an elemental level, they are reacting as one might when sitting down to share a meal with someone who just changed the oil in their car and hasn’t quite cleaned their fingernails. A common description, used by Ted Cruz, and members of the GOP intelligentsia, is “low information voter.”
This seems to be a dangerous conceit. If you look at exit polling data crosstabs, yes, you can see some correlation to income and education level, but only some. Trump is still winning the better educated and the wealthier, just by smaller margins. That has to tell you something elemental—that the assumption that all Trump voters are read-while-moving-their-lips-knuckle-dragging nativists is just nonsense.
Which leaves us, where? Resistance to Trump among party regulars, conservatives in the print and electronic media and more academic settings, hasn’t abated. Certainly the more communitarian conservatives like David Brooks, Kathleen Parker, and Michael Gerson are appalled at the noisy divisiveness that Trump exudes. You could be cynical and say they merely worry about the “brand” but their angst is probably genuine. I think we would all be less charitable when it comes to ordinary politicians—calculation is going to play a much greater role than principle (watch Paul Ryan playing the will-he-won’t-he Hamlet game for an exquisite example of this.) Among the harder right, what you see is a combination of fulmination, scheming (or dreaming) about a third party, and a latent willingness, even at this late stage, to use the rules to somehow snatch the prize away.
But, there remains this pesky fact—Trump is killing them in the primaries, and is now running unopposed. The voters (whomever they are) are choosing him, and choosing him decisively, except for the denialists.
Why? I was struck by two pieces I read recently, coming, as they were, from two different wings of the GOP.
Writing in the Washington Post, Marc Thiessen insists that the voters have not spoken because Trump only has about 40% of the total GOP primary vote, and that if Trump expects the support of the institutional Republican Party, he must have a come to Jesus moment and take the pledge. Show us, Thiessen demands of Trump, that you support our core values. What are those values? He lists them: Tax cuts for the wealthy, opposition to raising the minimum wage, more defense spending, anti-abortion, and an insistence that only Republicans be permitted to place people on the Supreme Court. Pure orthodoxy, regardless of the impact on the electorate.
Peggy Noonan, in her blog, has a different take. She says that perhaps Trump’s appeal is very simple. Voters are deciding that after sixteen years of ideologically-driven policies by Presidents Bush and Obama, both of whom seemed “not so much on America’s side as on the side of abstract notions about justice and the needs of the world” many want something different. “What Trump supporters believe, what they perceive as they watch him, is that he is on America’s side.”
If Peggy Noonan is right—and I think she is—than not just Republicans, but the political establishments of both parties need some serious time for reflection. Sixteen years is a very long time to tell people that their needs aren’t really your first priority. After a while, they start to believe you.
And, one final comment: Hillary, that applies to you as well. Take a good look at what happened to you last night in West Virginia and think a bit about Jurassic Park. Never forget, those objects that are in your side-view mirror are closer than they appear.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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I would also add a personal note. Earlier this May, I wrote a piece for the website 3quarksdaily.com. It will relieve you to hear that it is about Beethoven, and not about politics. Please read and comment on Beethoven's Democracy.