On Wednesday I wrote about the Republican nightmare that is Donald Trump and argued that Trump was a Frankenstein-like monster that they themselves created. It appears Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee, has just had his eureka moment regarding this problem. Or, perhaps more accurately, GOP donors have begun to sound the alarm bells.
According to this Washington Post story, Priebus reached out to Trump (quietly, of course) to urge him to “tone it down” a bit. Priebus and Republican financiers, the authors of the piece note, are concerned that Trump’s blend of bigotry and bombast “will set back the party’s efforts to rehabilitate its image and broaden its reach.” Particularly worrisome for party leaders is Trump’s immigration hysteria, which undermines the RNC’s efforts to garner more of the Hispanic vote.
(The New York Times then reported Trump's side of the call, in which Priebus came off as less direct, and perhaps even a little intimidated by the man running near the top of the GOP polls.)
Trump really is the GOP’s worst nightmare: He’s loud, dumb, confident and independently funded. He isn’t becoming the face of the GOP – he is the face of the GOP. Trump’s political rise, it’s worth recalling, is neither an accident nor a mystery; it’s the inevitable result of a decades-long strategy to appeal to an increasingly white and nativist base. He’s a political monster born of the sordid union between Fox News and right-wing talk radio. Republicans have aligned themselves with these forces, and now they’re getting what they asked for – and then some.
Despite Priebus’ efforts to reign in Trump, it’s not clear that he – or Republicans in general – truly understand what’s happened to their party. This is suggested by some of the quotes in that Washington Post piece. “I think he’ll self-destruct relatively quickly. The dynamic, I think, will change very dramatically, and Trump will be yesterday’s news,” said former Republican Senator Robert F. Bennett.
Striking a similarly optimistic note, Steve Duprey, a RNC official from New Hampshire, said Trump’s “frustration with border enforcement is shared with lots of Americans, but I find his views on immigration to be contrary to what the party of Lincoln stands for.”
Reed Galen, a Republican power broker in California, sees Trump’s rise in the polls as loosely related to “an angst and anger, especially on immigration, that the other candidates have been unwilling or unable to harness.”
The implication here is that Trump doesn’t speak to something deep and fundamental to modern conservatism. Tom Rath, a Republican operative in New Hampshire, was even more sanguine about the Trump problem: “In a vacuum, it looks like something is happening here. I don’t think there is.”
It seems the only Republican willing to speak candidly about the situation was the one who did so anonymously. “He’s already done some damage, and it could be substantial going forward. He could be one of the reasons we lose. It’s that serious. There’s nothing we can do about it, and that’s what’s so scary,” said one GOP state party chairman.
The unidentified Republican, unsurprisingly, is closest to the truth. He acknowledged (however tacitly) what the others desperately want to ignore: Donald Trump is a symbol, a proper manifestation of the conservative zeitgeist. As such, he can’t and won’t be dismissed easily.
Absent in most of these observations is a sense of the underlying forces at work in the GOP. Republicans have yet to come to terms with the reality of what their party has become – and how it became that way. They believe that Trump is an outsider, an alien voice in an otherwise mainstream party. That’s a mistake. The man is polling second in national polls among Republican voters. He’s not a fringe figure. He represents the base of the party. Trump is merely mouthing the idiocies conservative Republicans wants to hear. The GOP, you might say, has a demand-side problem, one they are unwilling to face.
That nearly all of the GOP presidential candidates have been slow to condemn Trump should signal to the RNC that his views are welcomed in the party. These candidates are forced to tread lightly precisely because Trump is so popular, because his nonsense is resonating with Republican voters. Republican officials are operating under the assumption that Trump is a passing infatuation; that he’ll somehow fade into political nonexistence. That may well be true. But that won’t solve their problem. Trump is a symptom, after all. He exists because Republican voters want him to.
The GOP can distance themselves from Trump, but they can’t distance themselves from the barren brand of conservatism he represents, a conservatism that now defines their party. Trump, in other words, is the Republican Party. And discarding him won’t change that one bit.