The Republican Party has added a new twist to its renowned blame games. Its Washington-centric establishment is saying the race for the 2016 presidential nominee is all but over before the voting starts.
As national news organizations are reporting just days before Iowa caucuses, it looks like either Donald Trump will mount a successful hostile takeover of the GOP, or the senator most despised by its establishment, Ted Cruz, will grab the nomination. That realization has prompted a growing chorus of GOP strategists and party insiders to chime in with last-minute advice to avoid what others say is inevitable, or simply panic.
“Whoever is not named Trump and not named Cruz that looks strong out of both Iowa and New Hampshire, we should consolidate around,” Henry Barbour, a Mississippi-based strategist told the New York Times, in a piece this week emphasizing time is running out for a “credible alternative.” His uncle is ex-RNC chair and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
“This whole thing is a disaster,” Curt Anderson, ex-RNC political director and veteran operative, told Politico.com in a piece that asked who let Trump get this far. “I feel the party has been hijacked,” said RNC member Holland Redfield. “It will be a major internal fight.”
“All of the hand-wringing and alarm-sounding within the Republican establishment is sound and fury signifying nothing,” Chris Cizilla, theWashington Post’s top handicapper wrote Wednesday. “The train has left the station. The boat has left the dock. The genie is out of the bottle. Pandora’s box is open.”
And what a box it is! Before Trump hijacked the headlines by trying to bully Fox News into dumping Megyn Kelly as a moderator for Thursday night's debate, and then walked away because he didn’t get his way (his press statement said, “this takes guts”), he was drawing the worst GOP publicity hounds. In recent days, that’s included Sarah Palin, Jerry Falwell. Jr., Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassleyand Donald Rumsfeld.
“I see someone who has touched a nerve with our country,” Rumsfeld said of Trump. But the one-two punch of Palin’s and Grassley’s support is seen as influential among Iowa Republicans, who are disproportionately right-wing and evangelical. That’s why Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008 and Rick Santorum won in 2012.
No matter the reason, the finger-pointing has begun. Republicans who tried to ignite a stop-Trump movement told Politico that the super PACS and donors that lined up behind their more mainsteam candidates—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie—misspent millions by slamming each other and not attacking Trump or Cruz. “It’s not just campaigns that are coming under fire—it’s also donors, many of whom were presented with the opportunity to go after Trump but didn’t pull the trigger,” Politico wrote. “Much frustration has been directed at the RNC, which some believe has been pushed around by the party’s surprise poll-leader.”
Trump’s Fox News Gambit
Going into the week before the Iowa caucuses, polls showed the dark mood of Republicans favors Trump and Cruz. The base is in a “sour” mood, the Postreported, although that’s too genteel. Ninety percent say the country is on a wrong track. Eighty percent don’t like the way the federal government works. Sixty percent say people like them are losing influence in America. Forty percent say they are “angry” about all of this—hence Trump’s standing: he has the support of 37 percent or so of likely GOP primary voters and has been leading for months.
Trump yet again showed how he can uniquely manipulate the media by reviving his fight with Fox News’ anchor Megyn Kelly. He deliberately picked a fight with her the way he picks fights with protesters at his rallies. The timelineof this latest attention-grabbing gambit saw Trump threaten to pull out of Thursday’s TV debate unless Fox pulled Kelly from one of three moderator slots. But Fox did not budge, forcing Trump to follow through on his threat or look weak—a cardinal sin for him.
The great negotiator might have pulled a dumb move on the eve of what was lining up to be the biggest night of his life—winning the Iowa caucuses to begin his hostile takeover of the GOP. As he will see, politics ahbors a vacuum and he just gave Cruz, who’s slightly trailing, and the posse of other mainstream candidates more airtime to attack and make their case. Undecided Republicans will see other choices without Trump hogging the limelight. Whether that’s a masterful move by the master negotiator remains to be seen. The Washington Post Wednesday reported that Trump supporters are parroting his lines that Kelly is biased and Fox can’t be trusted.
What’s most notable about this latest made-for-media dustup is what it reveals about Trump’s character—how thin-skinned he is when faced with critics who don’t fawn over him. On Tuesday night, Trump held a rare press conference and clashed with reporters who repeatedly asked him to respond to charges that he should not be endorsed by evangelicals because of his past marital infidelities. Come Wednesday, the Times’ campaign blog speculated that Trump knows he will be attacked for past pro-choice stances and would not be able to monopolize the debate coverage by attending. The Times also blogged that his campaign was walking back remarks about not attending the debate.
As the Boston Globe noted, “Cruz continues to work on his Iowa ground game while Trump continues to fight with the media.”
Not Republican, But Authoritarian
Whether he shows up or not, what the country is witnessing is not just a candidate whose uncanny ability to provoke and manipulate the press has upended previous rules of presidential campaigns, rendering mainstream competition all but irrelevant. Voters are also witnessing what an extreme authoritarian looks like and how he operates. That searing conclusion comesfrom former Nixon White House counsel John Dean, who has written many books about political authoritarians and their rise in the Republican Party.
“Trump, after decades in the glare of media attention, instinctively understands exactly how to manipulate the fourth estate better than any political figure in modern America,” he recently wrote. “By being himself, he is taking the country to school on how to dominate public attention with his inflammatory rhetoric, which he intuitively employs through unfiltered social media.”
Dean wrote that people who know Trump say he’s not behaving any differently on the campaign trail than he does in his business life. “I spoke with an attorney who has been involved in a number of real estate disputes with Trump, over many years, who said Trump acts in a very similar fashion in his business dealings. He insults and belittles opponents, and is an extremely sore loser, whose standard operating procedure is to try to bully and bend the rules his way.”
“We are going to know a lot more about authoritarian politics when the 2016 presidential race is completed,” Dean said, referring not just to Trump but also to the vast numbers of Americans who are drawn to following extreme authoritarians. What that says about the fate of the modern Republican Party also remains to be seen, but you can be sure that its mainstream leaders see the writing on the wall and are finding it disconcerting.