The fashionable new rhetorical exercise across the Republican Big Tent is for each disappointed faction of opinion leaders to blame the other for “creating the Trump monster.”
Talk-radio hosts have been blamed for giving Trump credibility with their audiences, especially early in the race, and are supposedly having deep second-thoughts now that he’s heavily favored to win the GOP nomination.
His major opponents, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are faulted for going easy on Trump, either because they wished to curry favor with his voters, or because each thought Trump was a bigger threat to the other. Lately Cruz and Rubio have been accused of squabbling too viciously for second place while Trump cruises past their tornado of fists, his path to the nomination unimpeded.
Many of the other candidates have been accused of enabling Trump to take first place in an absurdly overcrowded field, dividing the anti-Trump vote into ineffectual slices between them.
Jeb Bush spent too much effort clubbing Marco Rubio, despite Bush’s end-stage claims of standing tall as Trump’s first and greatest adversary. Ben Carson is peeling off votes that could go to a stronger non-Trump candidate. John Kasich ate up gobs of debate time that could have been used by more viable candidates to whittle Trump down to size.
The media had a hand on the huge electrical switch that brought the Trumpenstein Monster to life, too. Conservative media wants the ratings he brings. Liberal media likes that too, along with the promise of boosting a Republican nominee who can’t beat Hillary Clinton — maybe the only Republican who can’t beat her, assuming her ultimate primary opponent doesn’t turn out to be FBI Director James Comey.
The problem with all these “Who made Trump?” accusations from the circular firing-squad is that Trump’s primary victory margins are far too hefty to be explained by factional maneuvers.
He’s not winning by a tiny margin that could be portrayed as misguided dupes, and a healthy party doesn’t see its own voters as “dupes” anyway. Trump is winning because a lot of people are voting for him, including voters from demographics the other candidates were supposed to dominate, such as evangelicals in South Carolina and (if entry polls are to be believed) Hispanics in Nevada.
Trump’s margins are also far too large to be dismissed as whatever unpleasant fringe movement a particular commentator prefers to blame, from the “alt right” to mischievous left-wingers trying to set up an easy general-election win for Hillary. A lot of the anti-Trump commentary along these lines would be far more plausible if he was only winning by a point or two, but that just isn’t the case.
The other thing to remember about the “who made Trump?” fracas is that the same guy ran for President in 2012, with largely the same approach, and went nowhere. He was really good at working a crowd and playing the media back then, too, and he was no less brash and outspoken.
The most obvious campaign difference this time around is the immigration issue, but even that is probably better understood as a symptom of voter discontent with the Republican establishment, and their anxiety about the heavy-handed rule of Barack Obama’s lawless government.
Somewhere during the rush of this wild, outrageous 2016 primary campaign, many pundits and Republican Party heavy hitters forgot about recent history, or simply refused to learn its lesson. If anyone “created” Trump 2016, it was the Republican leadership in 2010, 2012, and 2014.
This isn’t complicated history. The Tea Party movement gave the GOP a stunning victory in 2010… and not only did they fail to run the ball for a touchdown, but they began attacking the very people who marched to the polls for them, seeking to marginalize a small-government insurgency in the Republican Party.
Republican leaders found willing allies in the Democrat media, which was terrified at the prospect of a nationwide grassroots rebellion. Various self-proclaimed Tea Party leaders made the job of trivializing their movement easier by making fools of themselves. The voters’ sense that the entire political-media system, including their own nominal party, was corrupt and stacked against them was reinforced.
2012 gave us the Romney campaign, and the re-election of the eminently beatable Barack Obama, who was sitting on the kind of disastrous record that should have gotten him laughed out of the White House.
Romney found a way to lose, after running a successful bare-knuckle primary against the few non-Romney candidates who didn’t implode on their own. The Republican Establishment got their candidate — a man of great personal decency and achievement, the textbook Establishment man, right down to his assortment of reach-across-the-aisle points of agreement with Democrats (sadly including health-care mandates.) The Democrats tore him to shreds. Peripheral Republicans and swing voters didn’t care enough about Romney to get him across the finish line.
2014 brought the even more historic, unbelievable Republican victory in the Senate. There has never been a more clear-cut example of politicians asking for a mandate, and voters giving it to them. A very long pass was thrown down field by voters, into the arms of a GOP receiver that looked as startled as the crowd by his miracle catch … then promptly took a knee and declared Democrats the winners of the game.
It was, at last, the bridge too far — the surrender Republican voters couldn’t swallow, the moment when all the old excuses failed. Look at it this way: a lot of the people voting for Trump basically believe the GOP leaders who said they could do nothing to change the course of the nation, even with both the House and Senate.
Those same voters heard Obama say midterm elections are a silly waste of time, and Congress doesn’t really matter, because the all-powerful President acts in the name of people who don’t vote. They have, to some degree, accepted this bipartisan Beltway assertion that the old America is gone — from its tattered Constitution, to the death of federalism and the separation of federal powers. From here on out, it’s the President, a super-legislature of nine lifetime Supreme Court justices, and a rump Congress that can only tepidly obstruct the will of the executive… or even the inertia of the bureaucracy, which is brazenly immune to reform.
Those voters know the system is rigged against them, most definitely including the media. They remember the sound of Mitt Romney’s glass jaw shattering. They resent a Republican establishment that treats them almost as badly as the Democrat establishment does.
Trump isn’t a game-changer. His supporters think the game has already changed. The rules are rigged, the “referees” are also players, and their old team doesn’t always bother to come out of the locker room. Trump is the first player his voters are sending out to play by the ugly rules they finally accept, because they think he’s the only one tough enough to win.
He’s mean and nasty! He’s thin-skinned! He’s a bully! He fights like a Democrat! He used to be a Democrat! Those are all resume-enhancers to his voters. They see a candidate who knows the rules of the new political game. They saw how much good Mitt Romney’s thick skin did him.
Marco Rubio’s aspirational rhetoric and youthful charisma would have been greater assets in the old game, but his campaign has always severely underestimated just how betrayed Republican base voters felt by his Gang of Eight immigration debacle. High-minded talk about how we can all be a great big happy American family is less persuasive when the opposition is openly laying plans to swarm us like piranha and strip our bank accounts to the bone. All but one of the Democrat presidential candidates named groups of law-abiding Americans as their greatest enemies in their first debate, and I believe them.
Ted Cruz correctly judges the new rules corrupt and wants to change the rotten system, which is my attitude too … but I’ve always worried it might be too late for that, might have been too late even in 2008. I always worried we would become a nation of factions and tribes, bitterly feuding over crumbs from Big Government’s table, because political power became more valuable than any other resource. I do believe we can ultimately correct our course by rediscovering the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, and I would dearly love to begin that great project in 2017, but I’m not sure the time is right.
Socialism does not unify, it divides. We had socialism under Obama, and far too much of it under his predecessors. It has divided us, and the last people who haven’t rallied for battle under a banner of self-interest — because they’ve been told all their lives it is uniquely sinful for them to protect their interests — are now ready to rumble. Fight, or be subdued: those are the only choices left. In an age of total all-encompassing politics, where cooking pizza is a political act that can get you targeted for personal destruction, there are no bystanders.
Donald Trump throws a lot of sharp elbows at his competitors, but he doesn’t attack his own prospective voters, the way the Republican establishment and too many anguished conservative opinion leaders do. He says he’s going to fight for them —not in some abstract procedural or aspirational sense, but in a blunt and practical way. He’ll carve them a piece of the pie, bully the crybullies, and slap some sense into the bureaucratic empire sprawled along the Potomac. His voters give him a pass on the details because they appreciate his intentions… which is the ground Democrats usually prefer to fight on.
It’s not the national conversation I wanted to have in 2016, but I’d rather try to understand the Republican electorate than insult them into submission, or threaten to stay home and saddle them with President Hillary because they dared to support Donald Trump.