The GOP's Real Problem

The loud, obnoxious billionaire Donald Trump has become more of a headache for the Republican Party than Hillary Clinton. Since announcing his unlikely bid for the nation’s highest office, Trump has upset expectations, zoomed to the top of the polls, and, as he never loses a chance to assure us, he has plenty of his own money to fund his campaign. Still, the worst is yet to come.

The immediate impact of Trump’s entry into the race has been to suck up all the oxygen from the other candidates. Why would Jeb Bush or Scott Walker deliver a major policy speech now when they now it could get precisely zero coverage because that same day Trump said something outrageous? And, if you are not a front-runner like Bush and Walker, how do you even get noticed in a race that is dominated by The Donald?

Trump’s rise in the polls could be the result of two basic factors. First, he completely lacks the self-censoring quality of most politicians when giving an interview and, just so, he comes across as candid as well as crazy. Whatever else he does, he does not put anyone to sleep. His answers are not poll-tested – that is obvious – but he does not speak like someone who has ever thought to poll-test his responses. So much of politics today is polished and contrived and flat. Trump, the man, like his hair, is never flat.

The second reason he has risen in the polls is more worrisome for the GOP. In announcing his candidacy he said some outrageous things about immigrants. Not only does he seem to think the Mexican government is actively sending people to the U.S., which is Oliver-Stone-quality crazy, but the people they send are rapists and criminals. “Some, I suppose, are good people,” he allowed, but that “some” only made things worse. It implied that “most” Mexicans are rapists and criminals. It is not simply that this is factually untrue, that a U.S. citizen is more likely to be victimized by a native-born citizen than by an immigrant, it was the sweeping indictment of an entire people that was disturbing. One half expects his campaign manifesto to be entitled “The Elders of Mexico.” 

Trump has said outrageous things before. Remember his plan to send investigators to discover where Barack Obama was really born? But, the problem is not that what he said is outrageous. The problem is that it struck a chord with many Republican voters, who promptly catapulted him to the top of the polls. He can be dismissed as a nut. They are the base. And, when you look at elections through a demographic lens, it is hard to see how the Republicans get to 270 electoral votes unless they can garner close to 40% of the Latino vote. George W. Bush got 44% of the Latino vote in 2004. Mitt Romney got 27% in 2012. Which won got to live in the White House?

No one should be surprised by the GOP’s base endorsement of Trump’s anti-immigrant bigotry. After the 2012 elections, the Republican Party promised it would reach out to Hispanics, and specifically hat they would work to pass comprehensive immigration reform. In the Senate, whose members represent states that cannot be gerrymandered to make them more likely to vote Republican, comprehensive immigration reform passed by a large, bi-partisan majority. But, in the House, whose members do represent districts that are carved to make it almost impossible for a Republican to lose, not enough Republicans were willing to expose themselves to a primary challenger by backing the reform bill, and so it never even came up for a vote. Those members of the House GOP caucus knew their base, and the base was not ready to stand for immigration reform. Trump has connected with that base.

This past weekend, he overstepped again, asserting that John McCain was not a war hero, only a prisoner of war, and that Trump prefers guys who do not get captured. It was an ugly thing to say and it might cost him some percentage points in the polls. He also told a group of values voters in Iowa that he had never asked the Lord for forgiveness, which will most definitely cost him some support from Iowa’s large Evangelical voter base. Certainly, that is the hope of the other GOP contenders who rushed to condemn Trump’s comments, far more quickly and forcefully than they had taken issue with his comments about immigrants. I suspect it will require a few more, similar outrageous claims before Trump packs his bags and goes home.

But, here is the big problem the GOP faces. It is not that Trump is taking all the oxygen out of the room more than a year from the election. It is that whenever he does drop out of the race, the other candidates will be tempted to mimic his anti-immigrant stance in order to gain the support of those who supported Trump. Already, Sen. Ted Cruz is toning down his criticism of Trump compared to that of the other candidates – and Cruz also raised a ton of money in the last quarter. Both men are fringe political figures, but with so many candidates in the race, one of them can win a primary with 24% of the vote. And, both men could mount a third party challenge, which would virtually guarantee a Democratic victory. A poll taken in the past few days showed that in a three way race, Hillary Clinton would win with 46% of the vote, Jeb Bush would get 30% and Donald Trump would garner 20%.

That last figure demonstrates why Trump’s popularity is worrisome to everybody, not just to the Republican party. 20% of the electorate is so distressed, or so ill-informed, or so malevolent, that they think the answer to the nation’s challenges, to their challenges, is The Donald. Think about that. One in five Americans would be prepared to risk turning over the keys to the car to a megalomaniac. It is not a good sign for any democracy when a fifth of its voters are so angry or crazy they are willing to vote for someone who you would not want as a neighbor, let alone as a president.

During the Great Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932, many Americans urged him to assume dictatorial powers. He declined and, in so doing, saved both democracy and capitalism. Donald Trump is no Franklin Roosevelt. He more closely resembles someone else those years produced, Huey Long, whom Roosevelt dubbed the most dangerous man in America. Today, the most dangerous man in America is not Donald Trump, it is the voters who indicate they would vote for him. And that should concern us all.



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