One of the more interesting sideshows in the GOP presidential circus has been the high-wire act performed by talk radio hosts as they try to walk the party line with the heavy weight of Donald Trump hung around their necks. It's not that they don't have plenty of practice at balancing the party line and the conservative id; this year the wire is just much higher and the burden is much, much heavier.
A quick survey of right wing radio and counter establishment institutions shows that in general there is a clear preference for Senator Ted Cruz. This is to be expected. Cruz is a Tea Party-style movement conservative to the core. And his aggressive confrontational style is what most of these activists and media personalities have been demanding of their representatives in government for years. Cruz is a hero on the right not just for being uncompromising, but also for keeping his commitment to do everything in his power to deliver on their agenda. They could not ask for more.
But that doesn't mean they are eager to criticize Donald Trump, particularly when it comes to his hardcore stance on immigration. It's not that they truly mistrust Cruz on that issue (and certainly not to the extent that they loathe Marco Rubio for his involvement with the Gang of 8 and what they inaccurately call "amnesty.") There's no question in this crowd that Cruz's conservative bona fides are fully in order.
But as much as they like Cruz, on immigration Trump has been singing their tune in the crude way that only talk radio hosts and drunken uncles tend to. Naturally they like hearing it -- they're the ones who wrote the song. While the politicians in Washington were convening "autopsies" that concluded that the party needed to reach out to Latinos, the conservative base was screaming in defiance and nobody running for office articulates their rage about this the way Trump does.
But let's face facts: The media "thought leaders" may like how Trump is getting the base riled up and excited but they know he isn't really one of them. Like everyone else, they undoubtedly assumed that he was a good showman who was getting the troops excited for the campaign ahead, but would obviously flame out long before now. They may have persuaded themselves that the country is ready for a Tea Party zealot like Cruz, but Trump is something else altogether -- he has not signed on to the whole program and they know it.
This was illustrated in living color this week when, after all the demented statements Trump has made over the past few months, the thing that finally evoked a rebuke from every talk show host from Ingraham to Beck to Levin
Still, just as Trump's rivals have to be cautious about how far to go in criticizing him for fear of alienating his supporters, so too does the right wing media. All you have to do is watch the delicate pas de deux between Trump and Roger Ailes to see how challenging this can be.
Just look at the strange contortions Bill O'Reilly goes through to keep some semblance of credibility without alienating Trump's supporters:
"Donald Trump understands the anger sweeping America today, and is tapping into that anger. He's not really concerned that much much with policy right now, he is running on emotion. His campaign strategy has been brilliant, but if you take what he says literally he can be a frightening guy. I see many of his statements as over the top rhetoric, designed to get him votes, not necessarily in stone policy pronouncements."
Likewise, after very mildly criticizing Trump for the Cruz comments earlier in the week, Rush Limbaugh came back yesterday, post-debate, with this:
"Trump drops the performance persona and communicates. This is an example of many; these things happen frequently in his personal appearances. I'm only illustrating this, or mentioning it, because so many people still wonder how it is that Trump doesn't get hurt by what some people think are the stupid things he says or the ignorant things he says or the mean things he says or the controversial. The things that would normally destroy others he profits from. And professional communicators are scratching their heads, professional political people are scratching their heads, it doesn't make any sense. They're still hoping that Trump will implode. He's not gonna implode, and I'm just trying to help people understand why. It's all rooted in the bond, the connection that Trump has made with the people who support him. And, by the way, that bond is rooted in substance."
Contrast that with what he said about Cruz's debate performance:
"I thought Ted Cruz was outstanding last night. Ted Cruz speaks like a traditional powerful, well-versed proud -- unabashedly proud -- conservative. He is an articulate representative of conservatism and the conservative movement, and he is a happy warrior. He loves doing what he's doing. He loves mixing it up. He loves getting in there. And he is relishing this opportunity to put on display what he believes and what millions of the rest of us believe."
Rush went on and on about how Trump was the first to tap into people's anger and condemn political correctness and tell it like it is. He took some oblique credit for reeling Trump back in on the Cruz "maniac" question. Then he commented on what was really important: He ran Trump's little speech in which he said he would not run as an independent. and said:
"Okay, so the performance persona is gone there, folks. That's straight from the heart. That happens frequently in his personal appearances. There was humility. All the characteristics that people think Trump doesn't have were right there in 30 seconds."
Trump was a good boy and got with the program and Rush was clearly very relieved. But nobody's really kidding themselves that anything Trump says is binding.
Limbaugh and the rest of the talkers are palpably nervous, as you can see by their bizarre rationalizations about the Trump phenomenon. They are all conservative-movement media figures who cater to the right wing, so they have to at least pay lip service to his appeal. But they are also political professionals who don't live completely in the bubble they have created for the rubes. They know Trump is a disaster for the party. At this point they're just trying to keep things from hurtling out of control.
The question is if they have somehow managed to persuade themselves that their favorite maniac, Ted Cruz, can actually win the nomination. It's likely that they, like everyone else, had assumed that a more mainstream figure would come out on top and they would reluctantly go along. Now it's looking like there's a decent chance their guy could head the ticket.
The prospect of that must make them even more nervous than Trump. After all, if Cruz wins the nomination and loses the general election, they will not be able to fall back on their perennial excuse that the nominee wasn't conservative enough. You cannot get any more conservative than Ted Cruz. If that happens it won't be a disaster for the Republican Party -- it will be a disaster for the conservative movement. But it would be very good for the country.