Donald Trump and Ben Carson are the clear frontrunners in the Republican presidential race. It’s possible – perhaps even probable – that one of them could actually win the nomination.
It was thought that Trump’s political star was fading, that conservatives had finally grown tired of his screwy shtick. But that’s not the case. After dipping momentarily, Trump’s national lead is creeping back up. The latest ABC/Washington Post poll shows Trump at 32 percent, well above the rest of the field. (Carson is comfortably in second with 22 percent support.)
GOP insiders have been waiting patiently for Trump and Carson to implode. And there’s an argument to be made that Trump and Carson are like previous Republican candidates who caught fire early in the race but inevitably foundered when voters started paying attention – e.g., Herman Cain or Michelle Bachmann or Fred Thompson. But this time may be different.
If you look at how the race is shaping up, it’s hard to see how Trump or Carson fall anytime soon. The early primaries are key, both in terms of fundraising and momentum, and Trump and Carson are well-positioned. In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Trump and Carson are dominating. Both, moreover, are appealing to conservatives in every corner of the country, from Massachusetts to Nevada to Arizona to Florida. They’re not regional candidates, in other words – they can win everywhere.
These numbers ought to terrify the Republican establishment. If either Trump or Carson become the nominee, the GOP will lose in a landslide. The conservative base is comfortable nominating political neophytes for president, but the rest of the country is not. Once the nation sees how breathtakingly ignorant Carson and Trump are in comparison to a Clinton or a Sanders, both of whom have actual political experience, the choice will be obvious.
There are, however, serious conservatives who despise Trump but see a silver lining in his nomination. In July, Bruce Bartlett penned an essay for Politico in which he argued that a massive loss by Trump in a general election would, ultimately, be a good thing for the GOP. Bartlett writes:
The Republican establishment foresees a defeat of Barry Goldwater proportions in the unlikely event Trump wins the Republican presidential nomination. As Trump’s lead in the polls grows, so too does their panic. Yet, for moderate Republicans, a Trump nomination is not something to be feared but welcomed. It is only after a landslide loss by Trump that the GOP can win the White House again. Trump’s nomination would give what’s left of the sane wing of the GOP a chance to reassert control in the wake of his inevitable defeat, because it would prove beyond doubt that the existing conservative coalition cannot win the presidency. A historic thrashing of the know-nothings would verify that compromise and reform are essential to recapture the White House and attract new voters, such as Latinos, who are now alienated from the Republican Party.
I understand Bartlett’s logic, but this borders on wishful thinking. This isn’t 1964, the year Goldwater ran for president. We live in a new political reality, with a completely different information infrastructure. Conservatives, far more than liberals, live in an echo chamber. As Bartlett acknowledges, the “nutty ideas” animating the Republican base have become “staples of Fox News programming, which is the primary source of information for most conservatives.”
No matter what happens in the general election, then, conservatives will find a way to collectively avoid the truth – and Fox News and right wing talk radio will gladly help them.
But let’s indulge Bartlett’s hypothesis. Say Donald Trump wins the nomination and then loses badly to the Democratic nominee. Conservative Republicans can interpret this loss in two ways. On the one hand, they can say, as Bartlett hopes, that Trump lost because he’s too extreme, too unhinged in his views on immigration and women and practically everything else. On the other hand, they can say that Trump lost because he wasn’t extreme enough, because he didn’t double down on whatever they think conservatism is. You can hear the refrain now: Trump used to be pro-choice. He's anti-trade. He endorsed single-payer health care. He's not Christian enough.
The same is true of a Carson loss. Sure, Carson is the latest darling of the conservative movement, but if he loses to Clinton or Sanders, conservatives will suddenly notice that he never really knew what he was talking about. Rather than accept that Carson lost on account of his extreme conservatism, they’ll look for ways to retroactively condemn him as a liberal. They’ll open up just enough space in their information bubble to acknowledge articles like this, which highlight the many liberal things Carson has said and written in the past. Although Carson parroted every conservative dogma you can imagine during this campaign, conservatives are unlikely to connect that to his loss, because that would be an indictment of conservatism as such.
Bartlett may be right. Perhaps a big loss by an outsider conservative candidate would cause the Republican Party to recalibrate. I doubt it, though. Fundamentalists still control this party; they’re the most active, the most energized, and they’re supported by a conservative media-industrial complex that doesn’t care about what’s best for the Republican Party.
Moderates like Bartlett underestimate the self-reinforcing power of ideological narratives. The hardcore wing of the Republican base is wedded to a political mythology that is based on a host of assumptions – about America’s history, about the role of government, about the primacy of religion, and about the roots and utility of economic inequality. Abandoning these ideological commitments means abandoning an entire political worldview, and that’s unlikely to happen.
To be a conservative ideologue today is to live in a feedback loop, where every loss is reinterpreted as a win. Republican culture warriors, who hijacked the conservative movement years ago, have done nothing but lose in the last decade, and yet they’re convinced most of the country agrees with them – because Sean Hannity tells them so. From abortion to drug legalization to same sex marriage, conservatives find themselves on the wrong side of history.
No one is suggesting that social conservatives renounce their beliefs, but if they were honest with themselves, they’d accept that they’re a minority and that their views have been rejected. Instead, thanks to the good folks at Fox, they’re told that the problem isn’t their positions but their representatives, who just aren’t conservative enough. What they really need are bolder conservatives, people like Ted Cruz, who will pander mercilessly to them but fail to win a single legislative battle.
Bartlett thinks a devastating loss in the general election will force Republican voters to renounce people like Cruz in favor of more moderate candidates like Jeb Bush. I think the opposite is true: They’ll clamor for more conservatives and more conservatism, and if the establishment gives them moderates instead, they’ll walk away from the party. And since the GOP would cease to be competitive at all without its fundamentalist base, the party will have no choice but to yield to the purists.
But maybe I’m wrong. We’ll know soon enough.
Watch four of the scariest thing Ben Carson has said on the campaign trail:
[jwplayer file="http://media.salon.com/2015/10/bencarsonscaryquotes.janetupadhye.10.26.2015.mp4" image="http://media.salon.com/2015/10/ben_carson11.jpg"][/jwplayer]