Watching former Speaker of the House John Boehner stagger around, referring to Ted Cruz as the Devil and announcing his endorsement for non-candidate Paul Ryan as President, is a great reminder that this election isn’t really about Donald Trump.
It’s Boehner and his band that got us here. Trump just happened to be strangely well-suited to walk into the opening they created. The election chaos you’re seeing right now was brought to you by the GOP Establishment.
Can we please stop with the childish whining that the “GOP Establishment” is a mythical beast no one can define?We all know what the term refers to. It’s the Republican Party leadership and their donor class, plus the swarm of vampiric consultants that flutters around their marquee names. (Having said that, the tendency of some people to dismiss every Republican they disagree with as a member, or minion, of the hated Establishment is lamentable.)
The problem isn’t that the GOP Establishment exists, but that it has so completely lost touch with its voters, and has in fact become openly contemptuous of them. A major component of Donald Trump’s success is that he speaks well of the people who feel they no longer have a seat at the political table. Yet those folks are hearing much of the political class, including quite a few Republicans, dismiss them as white supremacists and Nazis.
Look at the sneering contempt heaped on Trump and his supporters when he said, “We won with the poorly educated, I love the poorly educated” in his Nevada victory speech. The people Trump was addressing knew exactly what he meant, and returned the affection. The Republican political machine reacted by demeaning and alienating a chunk of its voting base. It’s not Donald Trump’s fault that the Republican Party reflexively insults people who might otherwise be inclined to vote for it.
A constant refrain of this primary has been that Trump doesn’t enjoy anything like majority support from Republican voters. At the beginning of the race, we heard confident predictions Trump’s goose would be cooked as soon as the crowded field narrowed down, and the 70 percent anti-Trump vote consolidated against him. At the end, we hear analysts shaking their heads in amazement and wondering how Trump completed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party with less than half the vote.
What does it say about the decrepit Republican Party, if a candidate so outrageous as Trump can overpower them with such a modest share of the vote? They couldn’t manage to wrangle 60 percent disapproval into effective opposition? No wonder they get their clocks cleaned in national elections… and no wonder so many voters want to give someone dramatically different than the usual Establishment candidate a try, despite the many impassioned arguments against him.
Never forget that when this race began, the “usual Establishment candidate” was Jeb Bush – a basket case into which the GOP donor class poured eight figures of campaign money, despite actual voters never believing for an instant that he should be the party’s candidate in 2016. Bush’s sole achievement with that massive campaign war chest was crippling the far more attractive Senator Marco Rubio… who also never really had a solid national voter base, despite the punditocracy’s breathless appreciation of his stage presence and head-to-head polling numbers against Hillary Clinton.
The Establishment’s first choice spent his entire campaign trashing their last choice, because he couldn’t handle being eclipsed by his protege. Tasty pick, grand poobahs of the GOP!
Only the Republican Establishment could tap the man who declared illegal immigration to be an “act of love,” at the moment their base was roaring its demands for a return to sane citizenship policies, effective national security, and respect for the rule of law… knowing full well that man’s last name would be a tough hurdle for even a vastly more skilled and ideologically acceptable candidate to overcome.
Trump took off because he picked up the issues of immigration and opposing political correctness, then added his “Make America Great Again” economic nationalism. All of those issues could have been co-opted by A-list candidates from a skilled party in touch with its voters.
Trump’s detractors snort at what a clown he is, what a clumsy campaign he runs. Okay, but that big-footed, big-mouthed clown is on the verge of defeating the GOP Establishment – which has far more money, power, and explicit control over media than he does – and he did it by picking up the popular issues they treated like toxic waste. A better party would have seen that coming, and either been prepared for it before the race began, or adapted quickly when Trump’s early success defied the confident predictions of Party solons.
“Trump is only winning because he got $2 billion in earned media coverage!” say his detractors… as if that’s cheating somehow. He’s not a Sith Lord, folks. He isn’t using mind control powers to force the media to point cameras at him, or pundits to write thousands of articles about him. To listen to the opprobrium directed at Trump on this topic, the dismissal of his success as a mere media illusion, you’d think the ability to attract earned media coverage was cheating.
True, Trump had celebrity as an asset. I noted that Republican voters appreciated the value of that asset, and were not entirely irrational to do so, in the very first article I penned on his 2016 primary run. (As I said at the time, I think Republican voters can be a bit too hungry for the approval of celebrities because so much of popular culture is tilted against them, but they’re not wrong to think star power is helpful for getting the attention of biased media.)
The other Republican candidates should have been able to get some attention for themselves, and the Party apparatus should be able to help them do it. Trump’s voters sat through a 2012 election where the only sustained press attention lavished on Mitt Romney came after he stuck his foot in his mouth, which he did on a fairly regular basis. Also, Trump tried his hand at presidential politics back then, and his stagecraft techniques were on display for all other campaigns to study. Listening to the rest of the Republican Party wail that its candidates don’t know how to get the attention of journalists is rather sad.
“Trump is really a Democrat in Republican clothing!” say #NeverTrump conservative stalwarts, noting that his Republican costume doesn’t even fit terribly well. What does it say about the Republican Party that it had no resistance to such a virus? If the GOP had embraced conservatives long ago, and the Tea Party more recently, it would be in far better shape to handle a populist with some Left-leaning ideas today.
Sadly, the Republican Establishment tends to view serious conservatives as even more undesirable than Trump. At best, they tend to buy conservatives off with a few policy concessions here and there, and they reflexively go to war against serious conservative reformers, as Sen. Ted Cruz can tell you.
For the GOP Establishment, the last couple of elections have been all about finishing off the Tea Party movement. “Those wacko birds will fall in line after we stomp a few of their candidates, and fill the media with stories about how they’re toast!” Party elders told each other. Those idiots are in the process of learning just how wrong they were. They didn’t subdue any insurgency – they only nourished its anger and feelings of betrayal. The only thing they destroyed was the last vestiges of their ability to connect with the voters they needed to win.
How is a populist who isn’t very conservative, and has a storied history of donating money to liberals, taking the Republican nomination? Because the Republican Party isn’t really conservative. It takes all the media heat for supposedly being in thrall to right-wing extremists, without ever really flapping that right wing. After Reagan, the GOP didn’t exercise its conservative muscles, so now it’s the scrawny kid getting sand kicked in his face by a bully on the beach, gambling a stamp on a Charles Atlas miracle-muscle workout program that will never arrive in time to make a difference.
“Trump only took off because the early debates were overcrowded with silly candidates!” his critics cry. Whose fault is that? Trump didn’t make the rules that put 17 people on the stage.
Yes, that crowded stage certainly did favor his brash style, as most clearly evidenced by the early flameout of the promising Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin – who also mismanaged his campaign to a staggering degree. The GOP Establishment is swimming in money, connections, and high-powered political talent, but apparently it can’t spare anyone to help a top-seed candidate run a decent campaign.
Of course, while some Establishment mavens saw Walker as a top-tier choice alongside Bush, others had their knives out for him. The 2016 primary is a grisly illustration of how bitter and jealous the Republican aristocracy can be. No wonder it couldn’t score a solid hit on Trump during the crucial early months of the race – its biggest guns were always trained on itself. Establishment princelings were busy cutting each other’s throats, and even using Trump as leverage against each other, while he glided serenely to the nomination. When he chose strategic moments to blast his key rivals with his over-the-top insults, he was stomping on Party fractures that were already present.
When Trump snarled at ‘Lyin’ Ted the Canadian,’ all the nasty little Establishment munchkins who hate Ted Cruz rubbed their hands with glee, and updated their stupid electoral spreadsheets to assume their preferred candidates would rise as he collapsed. Only now, at the end, are some – and only some – of the Party power brokers making peace with Cruz as the last man standing against Trump… who, they say, is the worst thing that ever happened to their party. The Establishment is still making Machiavellian power calculations in private, while its representatives and admirers take to the airwaves to shriek that Trump is going to the turn the Republican National Convention into the Reichstag.
For decades, Republican base voters have been instructed to abandon their issues and compromise their principles to get the Establishment man elected. When they grew displeased enough to consider bolting for a third party, supporting an insurgency like the Tea Party, or stay home, they were castigated as traitors and fools – “You idiots are going to get the Democrat elected!” Now they’re insisting on someone the Establishment doesn’t like… and the Establishment declares its intention to dynamite the Party and get Hillary Clinton elected.
Stephen Hayes at the Weekly Standard wrote a broadside against “Donald Trump’s cheerleaders in the conservative media” on Friday, taking them to task for using the “peer pressure” tactic of claiming that Republicans who refuse to rally around Trump at this point are objectively pro-Clinton. That would be true of any candidate with substantial opposition in a hotly contested primary, wouldn’t it?
Plenty of people were unsatisfied with Mitt Romney in the 2012 primary, but they were given the same “rally around the frontrunner or you’re working for Obama” speech by his supporters. In a binary political system, where presidential elections tend to be won by turnout, it becomes tautological that refusing to support the Republican candidate – or tearing him to shreds in the late stages of the primary – is helping the Democrat win, and vice versa. Many Trump supporters have been hearing the “get on board with our lousy candidate or you’re a traitor to the Party” argument for their entire lives, and they rather enjoy holding the whip for a change.
Let us not forget the final irony that Trump is poised to win the Republican nomination by taking advantage of various procedural quirks that were designed by Party mandarins to thwart insurgent candidates. Also, he has prospered due to rules that conservative base voters have been complaining about forever, such as open primaries where Democrats can help choose the Republican candidate. He quite literally owes much of his success to the people currently presenting themselves as political samurai sworn to his destruction.
Look, I come here today not to praise Trump, but to bury the GOP Establishment.
The more accurate and devastating critiques of Trumpism I hear, the more displeased I become with a Party that could not constructively adapt to his issues, work with his voters, and maybe even help Trump himself to become a stronger general-election candidate. Instead of “stopping” a guy with this much grassroots support and bipartisan interest, wouldn’t it have been better to sand off a few of his rougher edges, make some really great deals with him – he loves that kind of talk! – and utilize him as an asset to the Republican Party?
Of course, if the Party had that level of self-awareness, political skill, media savvy, and connection with its voters, we probably wouldn’t be looking at the same Trump saga in 2016.
The point I want to stress is that he’s become the nigh-unstoppable frontrunner despite all the flaws his strongest detractors cite, and if he really is doomed to be crushed in the general election by Clinton – one of the worst candidates Democrats have fielded since the Reagan era, and the FBI just might step in to hand her the crown of worst candidate ever – it only highlights the feckless weakness of the Republican hierarchy that couldn’t stop him.
They attacked and crushed the Tea Party that gave them victory in 2010, instead of absorbing it and growing stronger. They took voters for granted one time too often after 2014, ignoring grassroots activists who howled this was one disappointment too many, and they really meant it this time. Now they’re folding up like a cheap tent in a high wind, because not only does an insulated Party elite have no idea how to deal with populism, they don’t even know how to deal with popularity.