The Donald Trump 2016 freakshow keeps on gaining momentum as it slides deeper into the pit of human misery and despair. For those who haven’t been following, the proto-fascist and nakedly xenophobic Republican presidential front-runner found a new way to broadcast his utter lack of human emotion: mocking a New York Times reporter for his physical disability. Trump denies he did any such thing, which is just another lie to throw on the pile. And if history is any guide, the whole episode will merely cement his supporters’ affection for him.
In one way or another, Republicans are struck with Trump. The durability of his support means you can’t just brush him off as a non-credible threat to win the nomination. And even if he does collapse at some point, he’s already succeeded in dragging the primary down to his own level. Other candidates in the race are reacting to Trump, shifting further rightward to better align themselves with his extremism, and eschewing direct criticism of the man so that they can position themselves to poach his constituency. Like it or not, the GOP is the party of Trump.
What’s remarkable, though, is how many Republican and conservative elites deny this reality even as it screams “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” right in their faces. On Friday morning, the consistently wrong and bafflingly influential William Kristol tweeted that Trump, despite all outward indicators, lacks “genuine staying power.”
It’s an amusing take for several reasons. First off, Trump has been the dominant front-runner in state and national polling for four months running, which would seem to indicate that he has some measure of “staying power.” The Atlantic’s Molly Ball went to a Trump rally in South Carolina and came away with the impression that Trump’s people are clear-eyed and determined in their choice of candidate: “Perhaps the people who first glommed on to his celebrity got bored and drifted away. But if so, they didn’t find anybody else they liked. And they came back. And now, they are not leaving.”
Also, there’s the inconvenient fact that Kristol has been incorrectly predicting Trump’s collapse for a long time now, going back to his July warning that Trump’s attack on John McCain’s military service would be “the beginning of the end.” In the months since, he’s said that we’ve passed Peak Trump, that Trump’s political stock was poised to crash, that “normal Americans” had grown sick of him, that he’d begun to fade, and that Trump had once again reached “the beginning of the end.”
Lastly, it was Kristol, you may recall, who gave the GOP the gift of Sarah Palin. Palin’s and Trump’s political styles are very similar – policy-light, resentment-heavy, personality-driven – and after the former Alaska governor was vaulted to the top of Republican politics in 2008, she won the adoration of conservative activists and mainstream Republicans alike with her folksy, inane, “you betcha” shtick. She was an early beneficiary of the same conservative backlash against establishment Republicans that Trump is currently profiting from. You could rightly argue that Palin differs from Trump in that she actually held elected office and had something of a political background to undergird her rise, but she remained popular well into the cartoonish, “death panel” phase of her post-government career. So it’s a bit strange that after he helped make a conservative star out of Palin, Kristol can’t believe that the party would also coalesce around Trump.
That gets to the conservative denialism surrounding Trump: The elites of the movement and the Republican Party happily encouraged and nurtured the same forces that have empowered Trump because they offered the promise of short-term political gain. The Trump phenomenon shows how those forces have grown beyond their control. As Brian Beutler writes at the New Republic, some Republicans and conservatives are, at this late hour, recognizing the threat posed to them by Trump and starting to grapple with the fact that they are the authors of their own political misfortune. But there’s still a sizeable contingent of right-wing power brokers who just can’t believe that Donald Trump is the candidate they deserve.