The GOP establishment's impotent panic: Why they can't make Donald Trump & Ben Carson go away

The two outsiders aren't fading, as pundits have assured us they would. It's a problem a few more ads won't solve

Published October 20, 2015 8:28PM (EDT)

  (AP/Mark J. Terrill)
(AP/Mark J. Terrill)

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” – H.L. Mencken

As the Republican presidential race drags on, it’s becoming increasingly clear, despite pundits' predictions to the contrary, that Donald Trump and Ben Carson aren’t going away. The latest batch of polls shows, yet again, that the two outsiders have a commanding lead over the rest of the field. The CNN/ORC poll, for instance, has Trump at 27 percent and Carson at 22 percent, with establishment favorites Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush both trailing at 8 percent apiece. The remaining polls are consistent with these numbers; a Monmouth poll released today showed outsider candidates Trump, Carson, Ted Cruz, and Carly Fiorina combining for 62 percent support, while Rubio and Bush combined for just 11 percent -- less than half Trump's total.

Republican insiders have secretly hoped for months that Trump and Carson would collapse under the weight of their own incompetence, but that’s not happening. And it’s not going to happen either. Republican voters, to paraphrase Mencken, know what they want and are getting it good and hard. And what they want, it seems, are politically inept blowhards.

A report in the Washington Examiner illustrates just how panicked the Republican establishment has become. “This weekend was an inflection point in the Republican presidential race,” writes Byron York, “a moment in which some significant part of the GOP establishment came out of denial and realized Donald Trump might well become their party’s nominee.” On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough related that he no longer hears “anybody saying [Trump] can’t win the nomination.”

Trump’s invincibility is now so worrisome that Republicans are preparing for an all-out assault. York writes:

Insiders have watched as Trump defied what many believed were the immutable laws of the political universe. First they thought Trump wouldn’t run. Then they thought voters wouldn’t take a reality-TV star seriously. Then they thought gaffes would kill Trump as they had other candidates. None of that turned out as expected. But there is one belief Trump has not yet tested, and that is the political insiders’ unshakeable faith that negative ads work.

I understand the panic here, but I’m not so sure a blitzkrieg of negative ads will work against the Donald. The man says and does one stupid thing after another, and Republicans love him a little more every time. An anonymous Republican insider quoted in York’s piece says there will be “massive resistance” to Trump because “He’s not a conservative.” Ok, but primary voters don’t love Trump because he’s a conservative; they love him because he doesn’t give a shit and because he promises to blow everything up. As York notes, conservative groups can question Trump’s conservative bona fides all they want, “But what if a large number of his voters are not wed to conservative orthodoxy as defined by Washington-based organization?”

Another prominent conservative, Pete Wehner, published a similar lament in the New York Times today, writing:

Republican voters are in a fiercely anti-political mood. As a result, the usual ways voters judge a candidate – experience, governing achievements, mastery of issues – have been devalued. People are looking for candidates not only to give voice to their anger but to amplify it. Reason has given way to demagogy…Such rhetorical recklessness damages our political culture as well as conservatism, a philosophy that should be grounded in prudence, moderation and self-restraint…Mr. Carson doesn’t abide by such niceties, and he may be accurately gauging the mood of many Republicans. The Times reports that advisers who once fretted about his inflammatory rhetoric have now decided to let Carson be Carson.

Wehner is right that Carson and Trump are resonating with Republican voters across the country, but it’s not because they’re anti-political; it’s because they’re anti-government. Conservatives have been losing the culture wars and the legislative battles for years now, and they just don’t give a damn anymore. They want to explode the system.

Trump and Carson are not just outsiders; they’re candidates without a coherent governing philosophy or even a tacit interest in policy. For that reason, they’re free to say whatever they want, no matter how insane, so long as it speaks to the angst of their core supporters. This is obviously what Republican voters want, and if the establishment thinks they can advertise their way out of this problem, they don’t quite understand what’s happened to their party.

Congressman Calls on 'SNL' to Dump Trump

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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