The Republican Party is trying to hold itself together in the midst of a long-predicted implosion.
Political scientists will warn you that polls taken in the August before a presidential election year are as pointless as 9-year-old’s career plan. Should I be a veterinarian, President Giuliani, or Hermione Granger first? But there’s no doubt that the inkblots we’re seeing in the current poll numbers that suggest that the GOP establishment’s considerable powers to shape the public debate have been useless against Donald Trump.
Our Joe Conason and The Week‘s Ryan Cooper both see shades of fascism in Trump’s campaign. Where other candidates who need to make a living after their campaigns are over fear the disdain of the press and the elite, the undeniably rich 69-year-old Trump can dabble in demagoguery beyond that of a pro-wrestling villain… with near immunity.
Cooper quotes Robert Paxton’s definition of political fascism, which begins, “A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood…”
There we find the core of Trump’s appeal: humiliation.
For almost a decade, the right has been humiliated: humiliated by the failures of George W. Bush, humiliated by the victories of Barack Obama, humiliated by Republicans in Washington who are limited in their incessant obstruction by the need to keep the government open.
A big chunk of the right loves Trump because all he does is humiliate his foes and refuse to act humiliated himself. He picks the perfect enemies — his opponents, anyone on the left, and anyone who challenges him in public — and he can’t lose because he has no shame, boundaries or compunction. His campaign slogan might as well be “I Will Bend You Over.”
Republicans know that to win in 2016, they either need to do as well with white voters as they did in the ’80s or they need to do better with minorities than they have since 2004. Trump is giving them a first-hand look at the horrors of a campaign built to appeal almost exclusively to white voters. It doesn’t just require a promise to deport 11 million people like so much cattle. It requires you to pretend that there are 30 million undocumented immigrants in America whom we can round up and deliver to… somewhere. This untethered, unsubtle xenophobia is a turn-on for David Duke and other white nationalists. And it feels like the “truth” to a movement built on sly dogwhistles.
But winning white voters also means abandoning the party’s orthodoxy on opposing tax increases for the rich and “phasing out” Social Security and Medicare. This disloyalty baffles his opponents and exposes the GOP’s approval of policies that benefit the few explicitly at the expense of the masses of voters who put them in power. (This isn’t to say Trump is fiscally progressive in any way. Beneath his rhetoric is a standard right wing support of huge wage cuts for workers and cutting anything the government does that doesn’t help old white people.)
Republicans want to argue that Trump is an aberration who exists despite conservatism. But what’s more true is that Trump is the perfected vision of the Christian Libertarianism that the right embraced to oppose the New Deal. This religious vision, as described in Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God, sees wealth as the ultimate proof of God’s will. If you’re poor, you’ve earned that humiliation from the ultimate humiliator because you displeased him.
When Trump says, “I am very, very rich,” he’s pretty much saying, “I’m very, very blessed,” even if he doesn’t go to church and can’t name a Bible verse. That’s all the religion or policy many on the right need.
Trump will glom on to whatever’s popular or necessary because he isn’t here to discuss policy. He’s here to stomp on the people you oppose—on your behalf. And stomp he does.
Here are the 5 GOP candidates who have suffered the most in Trump’s wake. In his parlance, they are “losers.” And we’ll just skip Muppet Babies Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham, who most people wouldn’t even know are running if Trump didn’t occasionally abuse them.
5. Rick Perry.
The longest-serving governor of Texas decided to be serious this time around, after blowing a clear path to the nomination in 2012 by talking. He decided to take on Trump early, slamming the billionaire for using rhetorical themes Perry has relied on for years, but in much more vivid, catchy ways. He ended up seeming dimwitted, slow, and hypocritical. He’s lost his top Iowa advisor to Trump. It’s unclear whether he still has a paid campaign staff at all, and he’s likely to be the first candidate to drop out of the race. But he may be remembered for being the candidate willing to say Trump was a “cancer” who threatened the existence of the Republican Party.
4. Chris Christie.
Historians will have to figure out what doomed Chris Christie’s presidential campaign before it started. Was it Bridgegate or the realization that he’s a failure as a governor; one whose greatest legacy will be rejecting a tunnel to New York City that New Jersey desperately needed. Christie and Trump are pals who swim in the same swamps and The Donald hasn’t bashed him significantly. While the press imagines he’s the perfect candidate to engineer a surge in New Hampshire, a SuperPAC designed to stop Christie is folding because the candidate already did the job himself.
3. Scott Walker.
How many times does Scott Walker have to insist that he’s unintimidated before you’re sure the opposite is true? Next to Trump, the governor of Wisconsin looks like a sad hound rolled over on his belly. Walker did well in off-years in a state where outside money let him issue his own jobs numbers that disguised his ineptitude. But on the trail, he can’t answer basic questions, shifts positions passionlessly and tires with his affect of stolid self-contentment. He’s still the Koch brothers’ favorite and the party’s best hope for a generic conservative to take on Trump and Bush. But for a guy who once was praised as sitting on a throne made of his enemies’ skulls, he’s coming off as an afterthought.
2. Jeb Bush.
Even if Jeb Bush were good at running for president, it would still be tough for him to compete against his brother showing up at the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, or Dick Cheney inveighing against the Iran deal with almost the exact same message he used to sell the Iraq War. Bush is the personification of the GOP establishment’s failures. His inability to condescend to a base that still loves his brother reveals his own condescension and arrogance. Ironically, Trump is thriving on those exact qualities because he refuses to hide them. This weekend, he lost two key fundraisers over “personality conflicts,” which probably means that in contrast to Bush, they have a personality. I still think Jeb is the most likely GOP nominee. But he could win enough delegates while still trailing in the polls, which is the recipe for a full-on crack-up.
1. Mitt Romney.
Have no doubt that Mitt Romney was a candidate for the presidency in 2016. And he’s the only candidate who was spooked out of a run by Jeb Bush. Nearly every Republican over 35 briefly led Romney during the 2012 primary, but Mitt’s support never dipped below 15 or so percent. Jeb, who is the Mitt of this race, is lingering around half of that. If Romney could have maintained that support and built on it from the goodwill of Republicans who backed him in 2012, he could be consolidating the establishment’s power and seriously challenging Trump. But it’s more likely he’s glad to be sunning himself in La Jolla, avoiding Trump’s rhetorical Molotov cocktails and laughing at Jeb.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering who is a winner in the GOP primary, besides Trump.
The answer is: Ted Cruz.
Marco Rubio and John Kasich have done well by largely avoiding Trump’s gaze, but Cruz has actively pursued the beast like the little dog in the cartoon who ferociously yaps at the big bully. Trump benefits from getting the stink of conservative “legitimacy” on him. That’s why he’s appearing with Cruz at an anti-Iran rally being organized by anti-Muslim extremists who previously had only been welcomed on Capitol Hill by rodeo clowns like Michele Bachmann and Steve King. And Cruz gets to neutralize America’s top birther while making a play for Trump’s voters.
While Trump’s rise promises real dangers, the American public can benefit by seeing the depths of Trump and the GOP’s extremism, which the party did so well to hide in 2014 and hoped to squelch completely in 2016. Unfortunately for them, the path to this implosion was set in 2012 when Romney stood on stage with Trump and the party’s worst instincts for self-humiliation were sanctified.
Photo: Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump answers a question as fellow candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (L) listens at the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder