If Donald Trump, God help us all, ascends the stage at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland next summer to accept the 2016 Republican nomination for president, I have a suggestion for the RNC. Instead of the standard cheesy biographical video tracing Trump’s journey from humble beginnings to the biggest spotlight (candidates in those videos always come from humble beginnings, even Mitt Romney), why not play these few minutes from "The Dark Knight":
Really, is there a better encapsulation of how the real-estate mogul has blown up the 2016 race than the ways Heath Ledger’s Joker describes himself? “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” “Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order.” And my favorite, “I’m an agent of chaos.”
(In my politically-themed reboot, Reince Priebus is Harvey Dent, lying in a hospital bed with half his face burned off, mourning his dreams and wondering where it all got away from him.)
The joke of the scene – no pun intended – is that the Joker does indeed have plans. Great Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions, in fact. And much like the Republican Party facing off against Trump, the forces arrayed against him – Batman, the Gotham police, the mob – are at cross-purposes when taking him on. Batman and the cops want to bring him to justice while the mob forms an alliance to neutralize him, only to see that plan go completely sideways. The Joker has no interest in maintaining any part of the established order. As Batman’s butler Alfred observes, he “just wants to watch the world burn.”
Republicans have responded to the Joker in their own midst by trying to have it both ways with him. Some are appeasing Trump while others condemn his positions with fingers crossed behind their backs. Which makes the party and the other presidential candidates appear to be some combination of incoherent, cynical, insane, or dumber than a box of rocks. More so than usual, anyway.
Which is why we have the spectacle of the other GOP presidential candidates reproaching Trump’s call for a ban on letting Muslims into the country when some of them have called for similar bans. Or demanding the Obama administration only take in Christians while leaving Muslims who have fled the upheaval in Syria rotting in refugee camps.
Sure, these are morally reprehensible positions, but they also might be good for as much as a three-point bump in the Iowa polls! So if the most important GOP constituency (talk-radio hosts) approve, far be it of any other presidential candidates to protest.
Or take this strategy memo that emerged a few days ago from the bowels of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s in-house organ working to get Republicans elected to the Senate. The goal for the 2016 Senate campaigns laid out in the memo, as reported by the Washington Post, is to “tap into Trumpism without mimicking Trump.”
“Trump is saying that the Emperor has no clothes and he challenges our politically correct times. Our candidates shouldn’t miss this point,” writes NRSC director Ward Baker. The Post continues,
Baker explains how Trump has connected with voters, especially when it comes to trade with China and immigration. “Trump will continue to advance those messages, but you don’t have to go along with his more extreme positioning,” Baker writes. “Instead, you should stake out turf in the same issue zone and offer your own ideas.”
Since Trump’s campaign so far has been built on a foundation of mostly saying outrageous and offensive garbage that makes decent people clutch their heads while sending a significant chunk of the GOP base into rapturous excitement, you have to wonder what the NRSC’s strategy will look like in practice. I assume a lot of Lee Atwater-esque dog-whistling, but who knows if Republican voters can hear dog-whistles anymore after their prolonged exposure to the air-raid sirens emanating from Trump Tower. How does one “stake out turf in the same issue zone” when the position already taken is an absolutist, apocalyptic vision of an America overrun by brown-skinned immigrants and politically correct leftists? Next to that, any other “turf” is appeasement of the forces that conservatives think are destroying America. Good luck with that.
Essentially then, even if Trump isn’t the nominee, down-the-ballot candidates are going to be urged to stake out maximalist positions on issues such as immigration. And that will make the GOP look even more retrograde than it already does. So while Baker’s sentiment that “we need not be tied to him (Trump) so closely that we have to engage in permanent cleanup or distancing maneuvers” is a nice one, his party is too deep in the thrall of Trumpism for that to be a winning strategy.