The Wall Street Journal had a report the other day about the efforts of conservative activists and operatives to knock Donald Trump out of the presidential race. It makes for some sad and panicky reading. Since the Journal is the party organ for what’s left of the northeastern Republican establishment, you can almost see the filmy coating of flop sweat staining the paper.
I wrote about this two months ago, and it looks as if the GOP has no more of an idea of how to handle the increasingly xenophobic, racist Trump Wehrmacht as it steamrolls the rest of the field than it did in September. The operatives quoted in the WSJ sound as if they are using a playbook that has served them well in their careers, with talk of outrageous television ads that attract media attention and show Trump’s position as “stray[ing] from GOP orthodoxy,” despite the fact that the candidate has stayed far ahead in every poll while inveighing against some of the governing philosophies -- lowering taxes for everyone, acknowledging that income inequality is a problem for society -- that have come to animate the modern conservative movement.
The obvious problem with this approach is that Trump is not a traditional candidate vulnerable to traditional opposition research and negative ads. He has made it part of his branding that he will say or do or tweet anything, no matter how vile, and then complain that any backlash is a lie propagated by political enemies intent on tearing him down. And still his supporters love him. The immunity to political history, and to reality, is his major appeal. He could spend the next debate eating puppies onstage and his supporters would cheer it as a hilarious rebuke to Muslims who consider dogs haram to the point where they won’t even pet them.
This blind spot for Republican campaign operatives becomes obvious when you read the internal memo leaked to the WSJ from Trump Card LLC, a new super PAC founded with the express purpose of attacking the real estate mogul and destroying his campaign.
The memo states that “The stark reality is that unless something dramatic and unconventional is done, Trump will be the Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton will become president.” But Trump Card itself is the brainchild of traditional GOP operatives who have not yet displayed any unconventional ideas. And the WSJ article gives no reason to believe they will think of any.
Trump Card was founded by Liz Mair, a well-connected Republican whose work running online operations for John McCain’s 2008 presidential run and advising role to Carly Fiorina’s terrible 2010 campaign for one of California’s Senate seats has apparently not precluded people from continuing to hire her for some reason. She is allied with Rick Wilson, a colorful and acerbic consultant who has been fighting the Trump wave for months, and who in September was urging rival campaigns to dip deep on oppo research against the candidate. In talking to the Journal, they are signaling to panicking GOP elites that at least someone is doing something to stop Trump. It’s the political equivalent of saying, “Don’t worry, we got this.”
But what exactly have they got? Sure, some of Trump’s positions are not conservative. But this frame assumes that conservatism is a coherent political philosophy. And in today’s Republican Party, that is not the case. Instead, conservatism is a mishmash of contradictory positions that can mostly be summed up as “If Obama (or any other Democrat) is for it, we’re against it!” Mair might have some issues she can talk about with regard to their relation to traditional conservative thought – Trump’s position on eminent domain, for example – but the nuances of that debate are going to be lost to the frothing, inchoate rage cases of the Republican base who oppose any argument that sounds vaguely intellectual or acceptable to anyone connected to Washington, D.C. You know, the people who keep giving us GOP Congresses in election after election after election.
This is all part of the monster the Republican Party has built over the last half-century, particularly since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, which it has harnessed for electoral success using unsustainable and outlandish rhetoric and methods. Now the monster has come to life, destroyed the lab, and lurched off into the countryside in search of small children to toss down a well while the GOP is just getting off the floor and hoping tossing a butterfly net over the creature will be enough to subdue it.
I do wish Mair, Wilson and their allies luck in the effort – I have no more interest in seeing Donald Trump win the Republican nomination than they do. But I’m highly doubtful that they will be able to do much of anything beyond freezing to death on the ice. At this point, all that stops Trump from dragging out the agony of this nominating process until the GOP convention next summer is Trump himself tossing in the towel. And he looks as if he’s enjoying the attention too much to do that.