In the run-up to Presidential election years, you can usually count on the Republicans doing something to screw themselves over. You never know in advance what it will be, but they'll do something
, or more likely an escalating succession of somethings.
In the current campaign, of course, it started with their monstrous regiment of candidates, turning the usual clown car into a clown bus
. But that was just a prelude to their involuntary re-enactment of Robert Louis Stevenson's under-appreciated little literary gem, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
"Respectable" Republicans like to paint Donald Trump as a buffoon, an un-serious figure who has come out of nowhere and inexplicably attached himself to their party to its detriment. In fact, he's the dark side they've been cultivating for decades under a veneer of decency -- he's the Republican id
, made flesh and set loose upon the world. And like Dr. Jekyll, they're finding that they can't avoid the blowback from their alter ego's increasingly erratic and repulsive behavior. If there's one thing Trump knows how to do, it's hog the limelight. The other candidates have been elbowed off the stage. Trump is sucking up all the oxygen the rest of the flaming nutballs need to keep going.
Since the great re-alignment -- of the 1960s when segregationist Southern whites fled the Democratic party and joined the Republican coalition, and the 1970s when the party made its fateful alliance with Christian fundamentalists surging into politics out of fury and alarm over the sexual revolution and the nascent gay movement -- the Republicans have been the party of those who resisted any progress in the rights of those who were traditionally kept down. Over time that element has become the core of the party. Republicans are instinctively, reactively hostile to every advance of gay rights, to black anger and protests at police violence, to women's access to abortion and even contraception, to any formal recognition of the equality of non-Christians, and on and on.
But there's always been that veneer of respectability. Minority vote suppression was whitewashed as fighting "vote fraud", a problem whose salience was proclaimed in the face of lack of evidence. Opposing gay marriage was couched as "defending traditional marriage". Anti-gay discrimination has become "religious freedom". Et cetera.
The problem is that the base is exasperated with that kind of subtlety. They're waving their torches and pitchforks and looking for a castle to storm. They're in no mood for nuance.
Enter The Donald, a man whose background is not in politics but in entertainment -- casinos, beauty pageants, and the like. He's not offering serious policy prescriptions (it's said that his books do, but these people don't read books). He's offering Howard Beale
and Rick Santelli, primal screams of frustration that express and legitimize
the base's inchoate rage in place of
solutions. Wall off the border and make Mexico pay for it! Bomb ISIS's oil fields! These aren't solutions and show no understanding of the problems, but the base doesn't care. That's not what Trump is about. He's Palin with testosterone. He's ditching the veneer of respectability and validating their temper tantrums.
And for that, they not only love him but will forgive him almost anything. If serious Republicans grumble that Trump in the past has donated to Democrats, expressed pro-choice views on abortion, and otherwise shown signs of not being a pure conservative, the base doesn't know or care. If they denounce him for attacking moderate Republicans, the base cheers him on. Any reader of rage-right sites like RedState knows that the base is even angrier at "squishy" moderate "RINO" Republicans than it is at liberals.
After Trump insulted John McCain
(and by extension prisoners of war in general), some thought he was finished
, but a new poll after that incident
shows his support among Republicans increasing
to 28%, twice
as high as that of the next-highest candidate, the hapless Jeb Bush. More clearly than ever before, he's the front-runner.
If insulting less-extremist Republicans works for Trump, will it work for others? Ted Cruz has been giving it a try
, and it seems to be getting him brownie points with the rage crowd. Just imagine what the party will end up like if this really catches on.
The first candidate debate is less than two weeks away, and as front-runner by a big and growing margin, Trump can hardly be excluded. Can you envisage guys like Jeb, Walker, and Rubio trying to "debate" a screeching, poo-flinging orangutan (who is actually smarter than they are)? Whoever wins, it's going to make a mess, and likely a hugely entertaining one.
Another source of Trump's support is his defiance of "the media" and "political correctness"
, which the base blames for conservatism's succession of defeats in the culture wars. He doesn't back down or apologize when he's called out on saying outrageous things. After the respected Des Moines Register vigorously denounced him
, he simply banned the paper from covering his events
. Most politicians know they can't afford to alienate too many people, but Trump's ego won't let him back down and his admirers think he's the one guy who's finally got the guts to speak truth to power.
They're wrong, of course, and so is he. If he somehow actually won the Republican nomination for President, he'd lose to Hillary by a bigger margin than any other Republican
. He almost certainly won't win the nomination -- Jeb is the establishment's candidate, and the establishment usually gets what it wants. But there's a problem. If a spurned Trump ran as a third candidate, he'd almost certainly bleed off enough of the knuckle-dragger vote to doom any chance of the real Republican nominee winning. Last week Trump explicitly promised not to do that
, then just two days later explicitly threatened that he would do it
if the establishment doesn't treat him "fairly", however he judges that
He's got the party establishment over a barrel
. They have no leverage over a man who really doesn't care what anyone thinks and has so much money of his own that he could pay for a third-candidate run without being beholden to donors.
I think he will
do it. He's made so much money in business that that pursuit has probably started to pall somewhat -- when you've got ten billion
, how much difference does another few billion make to your life, really? He's 69 years old and I suspect he yearns to try an even bigger adventure while he's still vigorous enough to pull it off and enjoy it. To be a mere also-ran for the Republican nomination, especially after leading the pack? I can't believe his ego would be content to let it all end like that. A third-candidate run would give him another year at the center of attention and controversy, and make him a key figure in the politics of the mightiest nation on Earth. He wouldn't win, but third candidates never do -- no disgrace there, and I doubt the responsibility and hard work of actually being President appeals to him anyway. He'd trash the Republican party in the process, but he clearly thinks it needs a good hard shaking-up (and a lot of Republicans seem to agree). He'd help elect Hillary, but she'd almost certainly win even without him, and they're personal friends (she was an invited guest at his most recent wedding). He'd win himself a place in the history books at least as prominent as Ross Perot. It's the kind of bang that The Donald, in his own mind, deserves to go out with.
And the Republicans? This is the end of the road they set out on when they aligned themselves with Jerry Falwell and the segregationists back in the sixties and seventies. It should have been foreseeable, even then. They did this to themselves.