It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
After Mitt Romney’s thumping in the 2012 presidential race, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus set out to revamp the Republican nominating process and repair his party’s toxic brand with Latino voters. Working with party leaders, he released a big report detailing the GOP’s failings in the 2012 race and encouraging Republicans to adopt a more inclusive tone so as not to alienate Latinos right from the start. He oversaw a restructuring of the primary and debate schedules that was supposed to minimize the risk of a circus-like nomination contest in which fringey candidates steal attention from more serious contenders.
And then along came Donald Trump.
We’re now in what feels like week 457 of the Trump 2016 candidacy, and the GOP is still can’t figure out how to handle this tangerine-hued, Armani-wrapped hate sausage and his crude, headline-grabbing bigotry directed at Mexican immigrants. They tried ignoring him, but Trump isn’t someone who tolerates being ignored. They tried (mildly) denouncing him, but he kept right on calling immigrants rapists and criminals (usually while speaking into a TV camera).
Now we learn from the Washington Post that Priebus himself called Trump and spent an hour “urging the presidential candidate to tone down his inflammatory comments about immigration that have infuriated a key election constituency.” Obviously, it didn’t take – Trump disputed the Post’s reporting and tweeted that Priebus called to congratulate him on a job well done. In the meantime, Trump continues polling decently well among GOP primary voters and continues accepting interview requests from cable news producers.
So the GOP has an intractable Trump problem. The harder they try to force him to behave, the more outrageous he becomes. Their best hope, it would seem, is to pray that Trump gets bored with the campaign and quits, or that he abandons the race to tend to his crumbling business interests. If that were to happen before the first primary debate next month, so much the better. But what’s important to understand is that even if the GOP does manage to resolve its Trump problem, the party will still have a Steve King problem.
Trump’s comments about immigrants are bad for the GOP because they’re nakedly racist and offensive, and Republican leaders have an obvious interest in disassociating themselves from them. But the reality is that Trump’s remarks aren’t out of line with what the party’s conservative base believes when it comes to immigration. The GOP has spent years fomenting hostility towards undocumented immigrants and railing against “amnesty,” which in turn has empowered hardline anti-immigrant legislators like Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who has exerted disproportionate influence when it comes to setting the party’s agenda on immigration.
King holds essentially the same view of immigrants that Trump does – Trump called the drug dealers and racists, while King famously quipped that most immigrant children are drug mules with overdeveloped calf muscles. King was asked last week to comment on Trump’s remarks, and he praised The Donald for telling it like it is: “When he’s attacked by other people, he counterattacks and plunges forward and he delivers more facts to support the statement that he’s made.” The difference between Trump and King is that King actually has influence within the party, and Republicans – even some of the same 2016 candidates who’ve criticized Trump – have sought to curry King’s favor. Earlier this year, King put on his first Iowa Freedom Summit, and several Republican presidential candidates accepted invitations to the event as they worked to position themselves favorably in the “first in the nation” caucus state.
Trump is a problem for Republicans mainly because he’s a big, gawdy, brightly lit billboard advertising the fact that the GOP is still the party of Steve King when it comes to immigration reform. They know that’s toxic politically, but they’re not willing to alter their policies and anger the conservatives in the base, so instead they’re just trying to get Trump to shut up.