The improbable success of Donald Trump’s unorthodox campaign for the presidency is broadly disconcerting even if its most immediate effect is on the Republican Party. From his announcement in one of his many self-named buildings through his most recent debate, Trump has brought us a style part Huey Long, part Berlusconi, part Le-Pen. It’s a toxic mix. He is a brash demagogue whose most consistent weapon seems to be the insult. If that’s his idea of American greatness, pity us. To say it’s painful to watch would be a gross understatement. In fact, it’s a bit frightening. Whoever wins the Republican nomination; it’s clear that Donald Trump has changed the game. I totally underestimated his candidacy. Even so, I continue to believe that, if nominated, he won’t prevail in November. That’s why I see Trump as more a Republican problem than a Democratic one. This is not to dismiss that his rise reflects something in the country that should concern us all. Bernie Sanders may, to some degree, tap into parallel frustration — one that whoever wins the presidency must seriously address — but he does so with positive decency. Sanders may talk revolution, but he is a builder not an ego-driven destroyer.
When Trump entered the field, and despite that most of them shared a hard rightist ideology that I deplore, it seemed the GOP had a pretty strong bench. At the time, many thought the November race was likely to see a Bush vs. Clinton contest, but other possibilities seemed just as likely. What Trump has shown, and what may account in part for his surprising rise, is that the bench was wide but exceedingly shallow. In retrospect we may come to the conclusion that it wasn’t so much that Trump proved to be a formidable candidate but that all the others were spectacularly weak. This in itself should shine a different light on the party that currently controls both houses of Congress. Perhaps they are so deft at saying “no” because there is no “yes” there.
But the immediate issue is Trump. We know that his personal demagogic style has found a following, perhaps a growing following. A large field has enabled him to “win” the first primaries with minority support. He’s used the large “bench” to his advantage. The winning has only fueled his ego and been used to rev up his supporters. Among them for sure are people who are simply frustrated, disappointed and fed up, but there is also a good representation of those who simply are in fear of and hate “the other”. That’s why his xenophobia plays so well. With hot and seemingly undisciplined (don’t believe that for a moment) rhetoric, he uses them both. Super Tuesday could set him on an unstoppable course toward the nomination. Trump will do or say anything to fire up a crowd and more specifically to win. He hates loosing. And that’s critical to remember going forward. Of course, he could extend his winning into March and still be denied the nomination if all but one of the others leave the race. But by that time the image that Trump is the GOP will have solidified. The damage has already been done.
Trump winning the nomination spells trouble for the Republicans in November, denying him the nomination might put them in an even weaker situation. Remember, the Donald hates losing. If I’m right about that, the chance of him mounting an independent candidacy is very high. Billionaire Ross Perot who did just that in 1992 was known for a big ego, but it’s dwarfed by Trump’s. Not only would an independent race by Trump further weaken the GOP’s presidential chances in the fall, it might have a huge impact on downstream candidacies. The House is likely to remain in their hands but Senate losses could be greater and even governors might fall.
So it’s truly mystifying that the party’s establishment has failed to mobilize itself behind a single candidate. Perhaps they all assumed Jeb! could do it for them, not realizing that rather than being the Bush family wonder, he is its most empty suit. Some have suggested that they outwitted themselves in allowing the Tea Party to morph from a tool into a controlling power. It’s interesting that two of the candidates still standing — Rubio and Cruz — are products of Tea insurgency. Unlike Romney, McCain or Dole, the current cohort of candidates, are not “of them”. They don’t come from, or belong to, the traditional political or business class. The present hard right party is out of sync with the major funders, who may be money-centered conservatives but who increasingly depend on a generation of employees (including immigrants) who reflect a changing America. Moreover many of them are not personally socially conservative. They might have made a big mistake in supporting the Teas, but they aren’t stupid and won’t repeat that error. They like to be in control and have prevailed in part by knowing when to cut their losses and pivot in another direction.
While boasting his business credentials, Donald Trump (like the Teas) is not one of them. He is of the unpredictable type. He doesn’t play by the rules and certainly isn’t someone whom they can control. Trump likes to do things “MY way”, to make his own rules. Imagine one of the Koch brothers with a reality TV show, or suffering multiple bankruptcies and calling them victories. He boasts being his own man and to be self-financed. He suggests independence, but he also knows that the moneyed class upon whom the Bushes and others relied can’t bring themselves to support him. Note that none of them have mustered their existing PACs to advance his candidacy. It’s likely that Koch money will continue to focus on state races, but some will simply go unspent. That won’t help Republicans this year and perhaps beyond. The party of Trump is turning its back on its sugar daddy.
Trump’s rise does say something about the country even if he only represents a minority of the whole. The visceral Republican hatred of Obama has laid bare an ugliness that abounds in part of the land. It’s not surprising that, in contrast, the tone and content of the Democratic primary race, heated as it may be, is focused on the positive, on inclusiveness rather than exclusion. When all is said and done, Trump or Trumpism seems to have captured the GOP long before the Donald threw his crazy hair into the ring.