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The Trump Paradox: The More Outrageous He Gets, The More GOP Leadership Has Cause For Agreement

Tom Keane: "Today's Republicans remember the GOP as the party of Lincoln and wonder where it has gone. Trump may be just the one, perversely, to help bring those glory days back." Pictured: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks during a rally coinciding with Pearl Harbor Day at Patriots Point aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., Dec. 7. (Mic Smith/AP)
Tom Keane: "Today's Republicans remember the GOP as the party of Lincoln and wonder where it has gone. Trump may be just the one, perversely, to help bring those glory days back." Pictured: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks during a rally coinciding with Pearl Harbor Day at Patriots Point aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., Dec. 7. (Mic Smith/AP)
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Republicans for Hillary?

It could come to that.

Donald Trump’s latest shocker -- calling “for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” -- has provoked widespread outrage and predictions of his campaign’s demise. Such predictions, of course, have been made each time Trump has made some seemingly appalling statement, whether it’s calling undocumented Mexicans “rapists” or mocking a disabled reporter. And each time, of course, his standings in the polls has only improved. Right now, according to Real Clear Politics’ averaging of recent polls, he leads the field by 14 points nationally and is ahead in New Hampshire by 16 points.

And the predictions will be wrong this time as well.

Rather than being outside the mainstream, [Trump] reflects the mainstream.

Across the political spectrum, Republican politicians and senior figures -- including House Speaker Paul Ryan (“this is not conservatism”) and former Vice President Dick Cheney (“goes against everything we stand for and believe in”) -- have denounced Trump’s proposal. Finally, it appeared (and many hoped) he had jumped the shark, he had simply gone too far.  This was the moment his campaign would unravel.

No way. As far as Trump supporters are concerned, he did nothing wrong.  Indeed, a Dec. 9 poll from Bloomberg Politics finds that two-thirds of likely Republican voters agree with Trump’s ban on Muslims. Rather than being outside the mainstream, he reflects the mainstream -- a telling comment on just how attune the billionaire is to the real desires of the GOP’s base.

In other words, the Trumpernaut proceeds unchecked. The Trump towers are not about to fall.

But something, in fact, has changed. Trump may continue to be popular with the electorate, but among the party establishment, he is increasingly an anathema. Party elders figure a Trump candidacy can’t win the national election, and his policy on Muslims makes that even truer (the same Bloomberg poll found a majority of all voters oppose Trump’s Muslim policy). They fear, too, that Trump will drag down the GOP in Senate and House elections around the country. And many also think, quite genuinely, that he is simply unfit for the office -- that he would be a disaster as president.

This split underscores Trump’s fundamental argument, of course. He has pitched himself as an anti-establishment candidate, and the fact that elites are increasingly adopting an “anyone but Trump” mindset only proves his case -- and improves his standing among voters as well. They think he’s the only one willing to speak the truth, the only one not tethered by insider interests. (Indeed, on the Democratic side, that same dynamic is what pushes along Bernie Sanders’s campaign, although his target is the wealthy, not the dispossessed.)

It is, of course, possible that some other candidate is able to topple Trump. As long as the field remains large, that’ll be hard. But if the other fractious candidates could ever settle on one designee, Trump might well be beaten in a one-on-one face-off.

It’s also possible that party insiders could somehow rig things to deny Trump the nomination come July 2016. But the primary process is intentionally designed to stop this, handing power to voters. And even if party elders have some trick up their sleeves, that almost certainly would cause Trump to run as a third party candidate. As Republican National Committee spokeswoman Alison Moore told Politico, “Everyone knows that a third-party bid would instantly hand Hillary Clinton the keys to the White House.”

But assume for the moment that some other candidate doesn’t topple Trump, and the RNC can’t engineer a coup. Trump’s the nominee. What happens then?

Today’s GOP is like some sort of unholy alliance, a stitching together of aggrieved southern whites, religious fundamentalists, business interests and libertarians that makes no coherent sense.

Elections are about making a choice, and sometimes that choice comes down to “bad” and “even worse.” For a great many Republicans, I suspect, Hillary Clinton (assuming she’s the nominee) may be bad, but Trump would be even worse. In exchange for their support, one could imagine the GOP suing for some sort of peace -- perhaps a more bipartisan cabinet, action on a few favored items, or a truce on the budget wars. That might give Clinton the opportunity to build a coalition that would allow her to govern, one far different from the hyper-partisanship of the Obama years.

So too, Trump’s nomination -- and presumed loss to the Democrat -- will likely force the Republican Party into some deep soul-searching. Today’s GOP is like some sort of unholy alliance, a stitching together of aggrieved southern whites, religious fundamentalists, business interests and libertarians that makes no coherent sense. It’s a tattered fabric that may finally be about to come apart at the seams. The current craziness that seems to define the party -- one that pushes away the centrists necessary for a presidential victory — is loathed by many who call themselves Republicans. They remember the GOP as the party of Lincoln and wonder where it has gone. Trump may be just the one, perversely, to help bring those glory days back.

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Tom Keane Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tom Keane is a Boston-based writer.

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