GOP must destroy Donald Trump before he destroys them. It may already be too late

Trump is the latest Joseph McCarthy or George Wallace. The GOP must excise the poison. History says they won't

Published July 12, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump                          (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Donald Trump (AP/Chris Pizzello)

Slightly hunched over and surrounded by a forest of “Jeb!” signs and shouting supporters, Jeb Bush was pressed by a reporter about the bigoted, race-baiting comments made by leading GOP candidate, hotel mogul and kitsch peddler Donald Trump.  Jeb, seeming like he did not particularly relish the chance to answer this question, remarked, “I don’t assume that he thinks that every Mexican crossing the border is a rapist.”

Bush was holding back and making excuses.  Surely the Trump stunt, Bush figured, was meant to “inflame and incite and draw attention, which seems to be the organizing principle of his campaign.”  The coiffed king of bad taste did not represent the Republican Party, said Bush.  But is that really true?  Republican Party renegades can always tack to the far right.  It pays to do so.

Trump has been polling amazingly well.  Apparently his comments about drug-smuggling Mexicans, anchor babies, rapists and jobless chiselers have helped him with the crimson-red base of the party.  Many major news polls place him second -- some even in first.  He and his swooped coif have a strong chance of appearing in the first TV debates scheduled for Aug. 6.

Where is the outrage from other GOP candidates?  Some respond to Trump’s bomb throwing with little more than a shrug of the shoulders.  Others express the kind of dissatisfaction a suburbanite might register at crabgrass on the neighbor’s lawn.  Said Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, “I’m not going to engage in the media’s game of throwing rocks and attacking other Republicans.”  In fact, the senator commented, “I salute Donald Trump for focusing on the need to address illegal immigration.”

That was probably a wise move.  Few in the post-Tea Party environment want to be out right-winged by the competition.  If one candidate claims to have two handguns and a blunderbuss, the next will proudly raise his Winchester rifle and point to a full arsenal’s worth of heavy weaponry.

The Old Testament maxim “there is no new thing under the sun” holds true here. The establishment wing in the GOP has been pandering to, drawing on, and occasionally ignoring the smoke and fire of far-right opportunists, miscreants, racists demagogues in its ranks for decades now.  How the party has responded over the ages sheds some much needed historical light on the Trump debacle.

In the early 1950s President Dwight Eisenhower had his own Trump troubles in the hot mess of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.  Unshaven, disheveled and toting around a dirty briefcase with a whiskey bottle in it, McCarthy took his anti-communist crusading on the road and onto the new medium of television.  Along the way he ruined numerous careers, made a mockery of the justice system, and proved that proof was irrelevant.

Through it all President Eisenhower refused to take a firm public stand against the rabble-rousing red-baiter.  Always careful about his public image and not wanting to lose important political capital in a fight with the controversial crusader, Ike laid low.  The former general angrily said that he didn’t want to face a back alley brawler like McCarthy or “get into a pissing contest with that skunk.” Lucky for the president, the Wisconsin senator finally met his demise. The Senate censured him for his recklessness and utter lack of ethics.  Three years later he died as a result of his raging alcoholism.

Picking up where Tailgunner Joe left off, the anti-communist John Birch Society fought mightily in the early 1960s to get America out of the UN.  They also accused Ike of being a communist and posited more conspiracy theories than JFK had mistresses.  The wide-eyed Birchers were out in full force at the 1964 Republican Convention held at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.  When moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller called for some restraint he was met with boos from the JBS crowd and fellow right-wingers.  “Rocky” might not have been a commie, but he was a paragon of the elitist Eastern establishment, which was bad enough.  In 1964, with Birchers running amok in the Cow Palace, many delegates zipped their lips rather than cast aspersions on the party’s far right fringe.  Barry Goldwater, who won the nomination in San Francisco, did little to distance his party from the hordes of treason screamers of the radical right.  Goldwater lost in one of the largest landslides in U.S. history.

Four years later the former Alabama governor and arch segregationist candidate George Wallace fought for the presidency as an ardent culture warrior. Wallace sunk to new depths of populist demagoguery.  Once known as the fighting little judge for his exploits in the boxing ring, Wallace would prove to rednecks everywhere that they were the true victims.  Liberals and minorities were destroying this great nation, Wallace shouted on the hustings.  He famously said if protesting, unwashed hippies laid in front of his car, he’d have his chauffeur flatten them like pancakes. Only a fiercely maintained law and order would set things right.

Republican candidates, perhaps in awe of Wallace’s tub-thumping, said little against the tiny former Golden Gloves champ.  If anything, other candidates like Richard Nixon were learning important lessons from Wallace’s School of Southern Populism.  The historian Dan Carter argues that Nixon drew skillfully on Wallace to craft a new Southern strategy.  Nixon hoped to lure Democrats into the Republican fold.  Nixon cribbed Wallace’s code words: “forced busing,” “law and order,” “states' rights.”  Tricky Dick, moving further to the populist right, won handily and took up residence in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 1969.

And so it is much the same today, 46 years later.  As long as a large portion of conservative voters cheer with delight at Donald Trump’s grotesque, bigoted rants, the GOP will have to keep tacking to the right, or at least find some way to steal a little of Trump’s wind.  The front-runners might not add new sections to their speeches on raping, pimping and drug-pushing Mexicans, but they’ll tread carefully so as to not offend all those voters who see a criminal in every immigrant.

By Randall J. Stephens

Randall J. Stephens is a Reader in History and American Studies at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne. He is the author of "The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South" (Harvard University Press, 2008; 2010) and, with Karl Giberson, "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age" (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).

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