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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Donald Trump will not be president of these United States, no matter the preferences of a substantial number of the Republican Party’s most loyal voters. Indeed, he will probably be a punchline by this time next year, even if he pursues the presidency as an independent.

For now, though, the real estate mogul and reality-TV darling is enjoying a moment aloft the polls as the GOP’s man to beat. A recent Washington Post survey showed him as the favorite of 24 percent of registered Republicans and GOP-leaning voters.

In that poll, Trump garnered nearly twice as much support as his nearest rival, Scott Walker, who was the top candidate of just 13 percent. Though Trump’s numbers could drop any day given his propensity for saying dumb things, his appeal so far seems to guarantee him a spot on the stage for the first primary debate, which will take place on Aug. 6.

Needless to say, GOP strategists are tearing their hair out, hardly believing their bad luck. After a grueling series of primary debates damaged their brand in the 2012 presidential cycle, they tried to rein them in, hoping to show voters a cast of serious and sober candidates.

But the superficial changes — including cutting the number of primary debates — don’t get to the much larger problem afflicting the Republican Party: Its strategists have spent decades appealing to the worst instincts of their constituents, and they are now reaping what they’ve sown. It’s the voters, after all, who are keeping Trump’s hopes alive.

Those voters have been treated to years of bombast and propaganda as Republican politicians pandered to their fears, their prejudices, their hatreds. The late Lee Atwater confessed that GOP pols perfected a strategy of playing to the bigotry of whites uncomfortable with the changes wrought by the civil rights movement. Too savvy to denigrate black Americans directly, they used a coded language, Atwater said in an interview: “… You’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites …”

That vile Southern strategy was never retired. It was simply given a 2.0 upgrade that denounces Islam, defames Mexicans and slanders gays and lesbians. Oh, and savages President Obama.

Having been fed that drivel for half a century, aging GOP voters are hardly going to suddenly surrender their gospel truths. Trump, a narcissistic opportunist, knows that, so he’s gone into overdrive coddling their prejudices, saying, among other things, that Mexico is sending to the United States “rapists” and drug smugglers. Guess what? His incendiary rhetoric has catapulted him to the top of the GOP primary heap.

No, Trump’s appeal won’t last. But the prejudices that are animating so many GOP primary voters are more enduring. And that’s where party leaders need to start their work.

They could begin with Roger Ailes, the former GOP strategist who heads Fox News, the premier right-wing communications network. His talking heads regularly pump out the most bigoted ideas, feeding an audience anxious to have its antediluvian views validated. (GOP bigwigs might also try talking to radio talkmeister Rush Limbaugh, but he’s likely a hopeless cause.) If Ailes cares about anything other than ratings, he’ll dial back the paranoia.

Then, the Republicans’ biggest names — Mitch McConnell, are you listening? — need to speak frankly to their constituents. Many of them are fearful of a country whose demographics are changing quickly. They can’t quite get their bearings with a black man in the Oval Office, a mosque under construction across town, and a lesbian couple across the street. As an aging (and angry) white Southern reader once said to me: “I’m being told that everything I was taught as a child is wrong!”

OK, I understand that change is difficult, challenging, disorienting. That’s especially true if the changes may make it harder for you to maintain your position at the top of the economic and social ladder.

But the nation, happily, has long been about the business of perfecting the union, coming closer to its creed of equality for all. So change is upon them, whether they like it or not. If they can’t learn to accept it, the GOP will remain shut out of the White House.

(Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected])

Photo: Tea Party crowd, 2010. (Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)