GOP's Trump panic: South Carolina rout leaves Republicans looking for something, anything to save them

With Donald Trump riding comfortably on top, conservatives scramble to explain why he's not actually winning

Published February 22, 2016 6:33PM (EST)

Donald Trump (AP/Paul Vernon)
Donald Trump (AP/Paul Vernon)

Donald Trump won South Carolina. Actually, “won” doesn’t quite capture what he did in Saturday’s primary. Trump blew out his closest competitors by 10 points. He won every county except the two – Richland and Charleston – that he narrowly lost to Marco Rubio. He won every congressional district, and thus took home every single one of the 50 delegates the state awards. Per the exit polls, Trump won or tied all age groups, and he won or tied all income levels. He put together an ideologically diverse coalition and won voter groups (like evangelical Christians) that were supposed to be his rivals’ constituencies. He did all this despite the fact that the state’s popular Republican governor and both senators all endorsed his rivals. He spent a fraction of what his closest rivals spent on advertising. After romping through New Hampshire, Trump dominated the “first in the South” primary, and he seemed to do it with ease.

Now as the GOP nominating contest moves on to Nevada and then the multi-state delegate bonanzas in March, anti-Trump Republicans and conservatives are panicking and trying to convince themselves that Trump is not the political force that he seems to be. Washington Post columnist George Will, a voice of the GOP’s patrician elites, is positively bewildered by Trumpism and throws down some sneering contempt for the Republicans who support him:

Many South Carolina evangelicals, like those in Iowa, showed, shall we say, Christian forgiveness toward Trump, who boasts of his sexual athleticism, embraces torture and promises to kill terrorists’ families. Or perhaps these remarkable evangelicals think his myriad conversions-of-convenience (his serial adjustments of his “convictions” in time for this campaign) constitute being “born again.” This is an interesting interpretation of John 3:7.

There’s not really a whole lot for Will to be surprised at here. South Carolina and its evangelical voters loved George W. Bush, the president who made torture official state policy. And they voted overwhelmingly for thrice-married philandering lout Newt Gingrich in 2012. But Trump does not comport with Will’s conception of the type of candidate the GOP should support. He prefers to see Trump as an aberration rather than a symptom of party rot. That’s why Will also subscribes to the idea that Trumpism – despite all the evidence to the contrary – has hit its high watermark. “Trump wants to delay the day when he has only one opponent and might learn that his ceiling is approximately what he won in South Carolina — 32.5 percent,” Will theorizes.

This same notion of the Trump “ceiling” is proving suddenly popular among conservatives who want to believe that he can’t rise any higher, and that the departure of “moderate” candidates like Jeb Bush will redound exclusively to the benefit of Trump’s rivals. There’s no reason to believe that the leavings of Jeb’s support will flock en masse to say, Marco Rubio, and even if they did, Jeb’s standing in the polls was so low that such a shift still wouldn’t be enough to derail Trump. These same conservatives are also ignoring the fact that the Trump “ceiling” has existed as an idea for some time now, and that ceiling has only inched upward with time.

But they earnestly believe this is Trump’s big vulnerability, which is why we’re seeing a flurry of calls for conservatives to “unite” at this late hour to stop Trump. Per the New York Times:

Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi, sounded a note of alarm about Republicans continuing to wait to see how the race develops.

“After Trump has won in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Republicans are crazy and about to blow the White House if we don’t rally to stop him,” Mr. Barbour said. “It’s certainly time that we have to consolidate the race.”

The hour of consolidation has arrived! Now that the horse has fled and run amok for seven months, the Republicans are finally getting serious about shutting that barn door. There is no actual reason to believe it will happen this time – like the Trump “ceiling,” the anti-Trump consolidation has also existed in theory for quite a while, but stubbornly evades real-world detection. When Scott Walker quit the race back in September, he pleaded with other candidates to drop out so an anti-Trump might emerge. Instead, Ted Cruz buddied up to the front-running candidate and Marco Rubio slyly maneuvered to better align himself with Trumpism. Jeb Bush was the only candidate to make a concerted, principled objection to Trumpism, and he’s slinking off to join Walker in the also-ran graveyard.

That brings us to the conservatives engaging in acts of anti-Trump defiance. In the aftermath of South Carolina, Erick Erickson has declared that he will never in his lifetime vote for Donald Trump. Erickson’s previous posture had been harshly critical of Trump, but tempered by the caveat that he’d support whoever ended up winning the GOP nomination, even it was Trump. He stood by that position as Trump promised to torture people out of sadistic glee, target civilians in the war on terror, deport U.S. citizens, and shut down houses of worship. But when Trump offered praise for Planned Parenthood ahead of the South Carolina primary, he lost the highly principled Erick Erickson forever: “Donald Trump believes the federal government should fund Planned Parenthood. Donald Trump believes there are good things the child killers do.”

You sense in all these dramatic and desperate acts a belief that somehow, some way, this Trump creature who defies comprehension will somehow be brought low by a timely resurgence of the Republican Party that these pundits and officials have known and understood for so long. They’re waiting with increasing impatience for a cavalry that, for all they know, doesn’t exist anymore.

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