Rick Perry is the only GOP candidate brave enough to call out Donald Trump (and that's terrifying)

The sad state of the GOP: The establishment hates Trump, but is scared of alienating his supporters

By Heather Digby Parton

Published July 17, 2015 3:56PM (EDT)

It was inevitable that among the huge field of Republican presidential candidates, a second-tier contender would take advantage of the opening provided by the Donald Trump phenomenon and position him- or herself as the anti-Trump. It's not easy to stand out in that huge crowd, and this might just offer someone a chance to get some positive press and separate themselves from the pack.

It's obvious why the first tier sees no upside in angering the Donald. As this article in the New York Times made clear, they need his fans to vote for them:

Since the start of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, a vexing question has hovered over his candidacy: Why have so many party leaders — privately appalled by Mr. Trump’s remarks about immigrants from Mexico — not renounced him?

It turns out, interviews show, that the mathematical delicacy of a Republican victory in 2016 — and its dependence on aging, anxious white voters — make it exceedingly perilous for the Republican Party to treat Mr. Trump as the pariah many of its leaders now wish he would become.

[W]hat remains so appealing to many of the white voters who like Mr. Trump is his perceived willingness to tell hard truths about delicate issues — racial and otherwise — that, to their mind, the party establishment is too timid to discuss.

“There are a lot of people who are very angry at the grass-roots level and who are convinced the Republican leaders in Congress are not doing everything for the conservative cause,” said Charlie Black, a former adviser to John McCain in 2008 and Mr. Romney in 2012. Mr. Trump, he said, holds undeniable appeal to such voters.

A poll released by the Pew Research Center in May found that 63 percent of Republican voters view immigrants as a “burden” who compete for jobs, housing, and health care compared with 32 percent of Democrats.

These top candidates -- Bush, Walker, Rubio, Paul, Huckabee, etc. -- are undoubtedly being advised by their campaign strategists to tread very softly, lest they alienate the xenophobic majority. But one of the current also-rans, who just want a chance to get into the debates, might be able to coax enough of the GOP minority who aren't Trump followers to make the cut. It looked for a while as if Lindsey Graham would be the one to seize the day, with his strident declaration that Trump is a "wrecking ball" who is going to "kill the party." But his point wasn't that Trump was wrong in what he said, but that him saying it was making the GOP look bad, which isn't the same thing at all. One might have thought that Rick Santorum, winner of the Iowa caucus in 2012 and the last man standing in the primaries after Mitt Romney, would step up with a strong moral condemnation of Trump's degrading comments about Mexicans. But all Santorum could muster was this tepid criticism:

"While I don't like the verbiage he's used, I like the fact that he is focused on a very important issue for American workers and particularly, legal immigrants in this country."

Actually, Trump isn't focused on American workers; he's focused on undocumented "rapists," who he says the Mexican government is somehow "sending" here as an act of aggression against the United States. And most of the other second-tier candidates have good things to say about Trump, which one can only assume means that they genuinely agree with him.

But this week one of the candidates did decide to take a courageous step of wooing some of those non-bigoted Iowans by taking on Trump directly. It was former Texas Governor Rick Perry who threw caution to the wind, saying:

"I have a message for my fellow Republicans and the independents who will be voting in the primary process: what Mr. Trump is offering is not conservatism, it is Trump-ism – a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense."

Now it must be noted that he was actually punching back after being slammed earlier by one of Trump's roundhouse punches:

“When he was governor of Texas he could have done a lot better in terms of securing the border. The job he did in terms of border security was absolutely terrible.”

Them's fighting words, for sure. But it doesn't take away from the fact that Perry addressed his comments explicitly to voters, which indicates that he saw a strategic advantage. Needless to say, the billionaire blowhard didn't take Perry's words lying down:

[embedtweet id="621783757532626944"]

He later tweeted that Perry doesn't know what the word "demagoguery" means, which is funny coming from Trump.

Now one might assume that Perry was just defending his honor, rather than deciding there was something to be gained by sparring with Trump. After all, the party as a whole is petrified to say anything too aggressive, lest he decide to take his billions and run as a third party candidate -- something he refused to rule out. Perry is a Party Man. But there is more to his strategy than just getting free press from the Trump show.

This has also been reported:

Unless candidates can raise their name identification and popularity in national polls, they won’t make the cut for the first Republican debate, scheduled for Aug. 6.

“We’ve made the decision to spend some serious money to reach a more national audience to introduce the governor, because we want to see him on that debate stage,” said Austin Barbour, adviser to a group of “super PACs” backing former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

The super PACs, known as Opportunity and Freedom, are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising on the Fox News Channel and other cable channels to raise Mr. Perry’s profile.

This ad-buy gambit was predicted some time back when people realized that there was a ton of money floating around along with a necessity to gain a national profile in order to be allowed into the debate. Perry is simply doing what Fox News demands -- which is give lots of money to Fox News. Funny how that worked out.

Whether this will work for him remains to be seen. He's a much more controlled and professional candidate than he was last time. Meanwhile, his foreign policy agenda is downright bloodthirsty and he has a compelling domestic record as Governor of Texas, both of which should be reasons for Republican voters to find him very attractive if they have a chance to hear about them.

It's quite a comment on our time that a successful Texas Governor (by GOP standards, at least) with plenty of money and establishment support has to get into a public exchange of insults and give millions of dollars to Fox News in order to even have a chance at standing on the debate stage -- with Donald Trump. It's as if the Republican primaries have become a form of crude hazing and rank blackmail rather than a democratic process.

In a sense, it's actually more like "The Apprentice" isn't it?

Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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2016 Elections Donald Trump Rick Perry The Republican Party The Republican Primary