The GOP's terrifying Trump ignorance: They think they can control him, but that just isn't going to happen

The party establishment will support Trump, believing it can rein in his rhetoric and policy insanity. They can't

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 13, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Carlos Barria)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

Everyone knows Donald Trump is obsessed with polls. It is his favorite topic on the stump and he recites them as if they're political poetry. But media reports suggest on Thursday that he only looks at his own poll numbers or he would have known that he was backtracking on his most popular proposal when he said that his much ballyhooed ban on Muslims was "just a suggestion." The scuttlebutt is that he heard from some of his new best friends on Capitol Hill that the ban was a bad, bad thing and he immediately reconsidered once these much smarter people enlightened him. This was just part of a day-long campaign to show that Trump has now become a fine upstanding mainstream politician Republicans everywhere can support with pride.

Paul Ryan characterized their highly anticipated meeting as being a "very positive step toward unification" and left it at that. But Luke Russert on MSNBC reported that the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senate Committee endorsed Trump with enthusiasm.  He also reported that many Republican leaders believe the whole ugly "Mexicans are rapists" and "Muslim ban" stuff was in the past, but they do wonder if he might say something untoward going forward.

To that I say: Of course he will. How do we know this? Well, we can look at everything he's said for the past six months, but let's take a look at this alleged "backtrack on the Muslim ban" as an example. Recall that his very first ad was this one:

TRUMP: I'm Donald Trump and I approve this message.

ANNOUNCER: The politicians can pretend it's something else, but Donald Trump calls it radical Islamic terrorism. That's why he's calling for a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until we can figure out what's going on. He'll quickly cut the head off ISIS and take their oil. And he'll stop illegal immigration by building a wall on our Southern border that Mexico will pay for.

TRUMP at rally: We will make America great again.

Trump's alleged walk-back came on Brian Kilmeande's show on Fox Radio On Wednesday. He was asked to respond to London's newly elected mayor Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim to hold the job, who was quoted saying Donald Trump has ignorant views about Islam. Trump replied:

“Well, I assume he denies that there’s Islamic terrorism. There’s Islamic radical terrorism all over the world right now. It is a disaster what’s going on. I assume that he is denying that. I assume he is like our president that’s denying that its taking place. We have a serious problem — it’s a temporary ban, it hasn’t been called for yet, nobody’s done it, this is just a suggestion until we find out what’s going on. But we have radical Islamic terrorism all over the world — I mean, you can start at the World Trade Center, frankly, you can go to Paris, you can go to San Bernardino, all over the world. If they want to deny it, they can deny it, I don’t choose to deny it.”

It's "just a suggestion," just like his promise to torture terror suspects and kill their families is "just a suggestion. " In politics they call that a "policy proposal" and people take them seriously. And so does Trump. Indeed, when Fox News' Greta Van Susteren asked him about "backing off" his plan, he explained that he always said the ban was to be temporary and "ultimately, it’s my aim to have it lifted." That is no different than what he's been saying from the beginning. His fans also go to great lengths to explain that the ban is "temporary" whenever someone brings it up. But that doesn't change the fact that, temporary or not, it is a bigoted, unnecessary un-American proposal and the mere idea of it is immoral and counterproductive.

Unfortunately it appears that the beltway is desperate to find a way to humanize Trump, so they're reading decency into his usual cretinous commentary. In fact, Trump managed to singlehandedly bring a majority of the country around on this policy over the course of just a few short months. In December 2015, 45 percent of all voters, 42 percent of Independents and 69 percent of Republicans thought this daft plan was a good idea. By the end of March, 51 percent of Americans were on board and 61 percent of Independents. Exit polls in GOP primaries consistently showed two thirds of voters approved. It's hugely popular with everyone but Democrats.

So Trump's not going to back off this "suggestion" and he doesn't need polling to tell him that. It gets big cheers at his rallies, which is all he needs. It's wishful thinking by the media, which breathlessly reported Trump's so-called change of heart as a signal that he is a man of solid character after all and will be someone we can all trust to run the most powerful nation on earth. For the first time in history, flip-flopping is being celebrated as a sign of a mature, balanced temperament.

At the same time, the GOP political establishment, led by Paul Ryan, has been concerned with one thing only. They say it doesn't matter to them what cockamamie policies Trump proposes just as long as he can show them that he has "conservative principles." They particularly hope that he will tone down all that crazy talk about protecting "entitlements" which grates on them like fingernails on a chalkboard. They can probably relax just a little bit since his "plan", such as it is, is to get such a tremendous amount of growth from his masterful stewardship of the economy that money is no object. But one of his closest advisers indicated they have a back-up plan:

“After the administration has been in place, then we will start to take a look at all of the programs, including entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare,” said chief Trump policy adviser Sam Clovis, during an event in Washington. “We’ll start taking a hard look at those to start seeing what we can do in a bipartisan way.”

Mr. Clovis said Mr. Trump’s policies—particularly growth caused by his tax cuts—would result in budget surpluses of up to $7 trillion after 10 years. Under current policies, the Congressional Budget Office projects cumulative deficits of $9.4 trillion over a decade...

Mr. Clovis didn’t detail policies that would close that apparent gap of $25 trillion or more and suggested entitlement-program changes could occur if growth doesn’t materialize.

“Right now, we’re not going to touch anything because we can’t predict the growth,” Mr. Clovis said. “We have to start taking a look not just at Medicare and Social Security but every program we have out there, because the budgetary discipline that we’ve shown over the last 84 years has been horrible.”

The Trump campaign spokeswoman said she didn't think Clovis was talking about cuts, but you can be sure that plenty of GOP office holders were very relieved to hear him use those beautiful words "budget discipline," since that's an essential dogwhistle for cutting programs for people they don't like. If Clovis can get Trump to sign on to that, they'll have achieved a great victory.

But that's a long shot. Trump's never been for cutting those entitlements. And "budget discipline" is a useless abstraction to him because he truly believes he will be able to create so much prosperity we will have money to burn. He's not into conservative social engineering or traditional values either. But that doesn't mean he's a liberal or that he has no principles. He certainly does and they are not very hard to figure out. He's been saying the same things about certain issues for many years.

Donald Trump is an authoritarian nationalist who believes in unfettered domestic police power and an extremely strong global military, both of which are tasked with ensuring that citizens, enemies and allies treat American authority with "respect" -- or else.  He does not believe in international agreements or treaties unless he has been the one to negotiate them and even then they are subject only to his judgement as to whether they benefit his side of the deal at any given time. He believes a president has the power to manipulate the private sector to his will, unilaterally inflicting tariffs and regulations to force businesses to do his bidding. He thinks trade wars, backed up by America's military might, are a useful and necessary tool. His mantra for years has been "we gotta be tough." This is all on the record going back decades.

Those may not be conservative principles as the movement has defined them, but they are certainly conservative beliefs, as the party establishment is finding out in this election. Trump has hit a very live nerve in the body politic. But just because he is consistent in his authoritarian belief system doesn't mean that he isn't completely in over his head, totally unfit and unprepared for the job of president. He's somehow convinced himself that he can "negotiate" prosperity, command respect through authoritarian dominance and just wing the rest of it.

Trump is foreign to our normal political system but the media can't quit him and the GOP can't run away from him so they're going to work very hard to normalize him in order to be able to fit this campaign into the well-worn grooves that make them feel comfortable. But Trump isn't normal.  And that's what his voters like best about him. They don't care about policy minutia or "conservative principles." They just want Trump to be Trump and that means he can do and say whatever he wants.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Paul Ryan The Republican Party