One of the best things about Donald Trump’s commanding lead in polls for the Republican nomination is the chance to watch the Republican elite’s reaction to his rise.
As the part of the GOP that cares most about winning elections, the establishment wing is most committed to repairing the atrocious damage the Republican brand has suffered. The fact that this cartoonish figure dominates GOP polls for President has to be causing the party elders deep frustration and anguish.
It’s fun to imagine the party bosses hurling tumblers of bourbon against the wall during strategy sessions as they agonize over why The Donald has not only captured their party’s spotlight but also managed to hold it for weeks. They’ve offered various explanations for Trump’s rise. Some point to his near-universal name recognition as the cause of his surge, as if being known for being a bombastic loudmouth makes his lead reflect any better on their party. They’ve also employed some pretty remarkable self-deception as they forget that his supposed name recognition advantage is being pitted against a President’s brother named Bush.
Donald Trump’s name recognition isn’t any greater than it was six weeks ago, before he made news by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug smugglers. It’s no greater than it was two weeks ago, when he made comments disparaging John McCain’s military service that the party elite hoped would finally sink his numbers.
But his comments on Mexicans preceded his double-digit surge in polling, while the raft of surveys released since his comments show little if any damage. Now Nate Cohn is out cautioning that not all of the polls released happened exclusivity after the McCain fallout, as if that’s a particularly mitigating circumstance. Not all of the Republicans giving Donald Trump the thumbs up by big margins heard about his comments impugning POWs – only some of them did!
Pundits who are religiously committed to their own idea of centrism – the belief that no matter the issue, both parties are equally crazy and equally at fault over gridlock – have also offered contorted theories to explain Trump’s rise, usually equating him to Bernie Sanders on the left. What they don’t mention is that unlike Trump’s policy proposals such as mass deportation, Sanders’s ideas – tax hikes on the nation’s 0.1 percent richest, a crackdown on the worst abuses of Wall Street, aggressive action to counter climate change, to name a few – are actually popular.
But the GOP establishment understands the difference – and they’re sweating it. It was really something, the orchestrated Trump pile-on that occurred over his McCain remarks. #Trumpheroics trended on Twitter, while in a highly unusual if not unprecedented move, the Republican National Committee released a statement slamming him. They were desperately hoping to use the controversy to kill Trump’s polling bounce.
But so far no dice. And as the memory fades and other Republicans try to claim their share of the spotlight with ridiculous comments like Huckabee’s claim that President Obama is marching Jews “to the oven door,” the 24-hour news cycle has moved on, with Trump’s lofty lead still intact.
Though unsuccessful, the attempted takedown was revealing. Republicans never attacked Trump when he said President Obama wasn’t born in the United States. When he claimed that Mexican immigrants in this country are vicious, drug-dealing felons, their criticism of his remarks, to the extent that they mustered any at all, was somewhat restrained. Republicans couldn’t effectively attack xenophobic remarks when their own party’s base was roaring its approval, but the GOP elite could pray his remarks on McCain would be his undoing. Essentially, they bet that the base’s reflexive patriotism would outweigh their delight at Trump’s slamming of immigrants.
They were wrong. And now Trump, with a new flurry of polling showing him retaining or even expanding his dominant position, seems virtually assured of making the debate cutoff for Fox News’s August debate. In the party establishment’s worst nightmare, he might even command center stage.
So how much damage will he do to the Republican brand? Maybe not a lot, since it’s already in tatters with the voters it needs to win to have a realistic shot at the White House next year. But the megalomaniac with a megaphone can cause plenty of headaches for Republican strategists. Partly that’s because of his own mouth, but there’s something about GOP presidential debates that most analysts don’t notice, or prefer not to dwell on. As Trump lays waste to what’s left of the Republican brand on the debate stage, he’ll have a crew of agitated ideologues to help him.
While not literally at his side, they’ll be concentrated before him in their dozens or even hundreds: the GOP debate audience. We’ve seen the way these audiences – the hard core of the GOP hard core – have represented their party before.
At a 2011 GOP debate, a questioner explained via video that he was a soldier, and asked what the candidates’ commitments to reinstituting the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law would mean for his newfound ability to serve openly. When he revealed he was gay, some audience members at the Republican debate booed him.
Not every audience member – in fact, probably nowhere near most of them. Most likely just a few. But the boos could be heard at the end of Fox’s cut back from the clip of the soldier, and video of the incident circulated the Web. It was embarrassing enough that a few Republican partisans would denigrate a soldier at a GOP event, especially for no other offense than to inform them he was gay. But what was worse was the reaction from the 11 GOP candidates on the stage: silence.
From the reputedly moderate Jon Huntsman to the fire-breathing conservative Rick Santorum, from the establishment candidate Mitt Romney to the kooky gold bug Ron Paul, not a single candidate on stage condemned the booing.
But the strongest words Governor Huntsman could muster when he was asked about the incident by reporters was to call it “unfortunate.” A Perry spokesman went just a step further, calling it “very unfortunate.”
There were other moments. On September 8, MSNBC’s Brian Williams noted that as Texas Governor, Rick Perry had authorized the executions of 234 people, and had barely finished his question — “Does the possibility that some were innocent keep you up at night?” — before being drowned out by an outburst of applause over the kill tally.
The moment was too jarring to gloss over. “What do you make of the dynamic that happened here?” Williams asked. “The mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?”
“I think Americans understand justice,” Perry said simply.
But Perry wouldn’t be earning applause from the same crowd later in the night, when he charged anyone wishing to deport undocumented immigrants who had been brought over to America as young children as “not having a heart.” The boos were just a prelude to a race to the far right on immigration that would ultimately cripple the GOP nominee in vital swing states.
From executions to marriage equality, immigration to Iran, we can expect the same levels of bloodthirstiness and callousness to be on display at the next Republican debate. And as Trump prepares to take the stage as the GOP frontrunner, pundits will breathlessly speculate over what he might say to harm Republican chances of taking the White House next year. But that’s the wrong question to ask.
The risk to the GOP isn’t that Donald Trump defines himself as an embarrassingly brash, xenophobic outlier when he shares the stage with nine rivals. The real danger is that in a field full of climate change skeptics and opponents of marriage equality, he doesn’t stand out at all. And though pundits will be loathe to admit it, the explanation for Trump’s rise will become a little more obvious to people just tuning in. Maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump isn’t any more of a joke than the party that’s catapulted him to first place in the polls.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.