The state of the race: The GOP

by Michael Sean Winters

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Now that both party's conventions are in the rear view mirror, where does the race for the presidency stand? There are many ways of looking at that question, and true to the focus of this blog, I shall consider two of those ways, the politics of the race today and tomorrow and what the race means for the nation's moral and religious sensibilities, especially those particular to the Catholic church, later in the week.

"I've never seen a candidate lean into his demographic problem like this before," said Nate Silver on "All In" last night, speaking, obviously, of Donald Trump. So far, every time has said something that would have disqualified any other candidate, Trump proved that he was not any other candidate. He called Mexicans "rapists and criminals," allowing that "some, I am sure, are good people," and instead of reacting with horror, his white male (non-college) base only nodded in agreement. Donald insulted Sen. John McCain's war service, and it did not cost him a bit. He proposed a ban on all Muslim immigration -- and he was denounced for proposing something that violated both the spirit and the law of the Constitution -- but his poll numbers skyrocketed. Every time someone Trump is attacked for these outrageous remarks, he paints the attacker as an acolyte of political correctness and doubles down. His base only becomes more enamored of him. Finally, here is someone who thinks like they think, who voices their grievances as if they were his own, someone who will not abide the canons of political correctness and who revels in saying things that are no longer considered polite. Finally here is someone who understands that America used to be great, but that it isn't so great in Scranton or Youngstown anymore. Finally, someone who recognizes that politicians are all crooks.

Trump's campaign is in shambles. Gallup reported that 15 percent of all voters said they were less likely to vote for Trump on account of his convention, the largest such negative number ever posted. He continues to pick unnecessary fights: Yesterday, he tweeted out thanks to Paul Nehlen for his comments defending Trump. Who is Paul Nehlen? He is the Trumpette challenging Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in the Republican primary next week. Why is Trump picking a fight with Ryan? Why did he spend the days after FBI Director James Comey lacerated Hillary Clinton trying to put the spotlight back on himself rather than letting Clinton writhe in the heat? Is there a ground game in Ohio? And, how do you mount a ground game in a state where you and the Republican governor are not speaking to one another?

Ironically, given his forced resignation last week, Roger Ailes has a greater right to claim the 2016 election as his masterpiece than anyone other than Trump himself. Ailes turned Fox News into a peddler of white male grievance. Fox created the meme that political correctness was the root of many of our problems including, strangely, the fight against Islamicist terrorism -- as if a change of vocabulary was all that was need to defeat ISIS. Ailes' lineup of rightwing hosts created the perception that, whatever the facts of the case (which were then unknown), surely there was something morally and legally wrong about Hillary Clinton's emails. Fox created so many of the narratives that have come to dominate Republican Party dog whistles -- I mean, talking points -- that it is almost impossible to overestimate their responsibility for the Trump phenomenon. They plowed the field and tilled the soil in which the Trump stinkweed has grown.

Following this Fox News approach and strategy served Trump exceedingly well throughout the GOP primaries, where white working-class males who watch Fox and listen to Rush Limbaugh are a large part of the electorate. And, during the primaries, his opponents for the nomination were reluctant to take him on for fear of offending the GOP base that was supporting him. The Republican National Convention was merely an orgy of Fox News tropes, strung together, dark, dystopian, divisive, aimed at securing their share of the ratings, not building a governing majority for the country.

And, there is the rub for Republicans. What Fox News needs in ratings to garner its ad revenues is a different calculation from what the country needs to forge a governing coalition, even a conservative governing coalition. It is one of the great ironies of Trump's success that there is nothing particularly conservative about him. He flouts the Constitution conservatives claim to venerate. He denounces trade deals that are the bread and butter and the caviar and champagne of corporate America. And, in order to address the "problem" of immigration, he proposes an expansion of government power, a police force to round up 11 million people, and then goes on Sean Hannity who takes a break from his condemnations of executive power to give Trump a rhetorical wet kiss. But, how does that get you to 270 and, even if it did, how does it set you up to govern?

At the end of this election, there are three scenarios for the Republican Party. It seems undeniable to me that if you really care about conservatism, if you are devoted to free market principles and the Constitution, if you cling to the hope that America will play a robust role in world affairs and believe the Republican Party is the vehicle for those ideals, the greatest danger would be that Trump would win. Then his remake of the GOP into a mere gesticulator of resentment would be complete, the principles that have shaped conservatism would be abandoned in the course of his four years in office. The best scenario is that he lose in a landslide: Then, the GOP could say that the problem was Trump, decline any soul searching about their complicity in his rise, remake themselves as they see fit, and let the failed candidate carry all their sins off with him. Or, between these two extremes, the leaders of the GOP must fear that if Trump fails to win narrowly, others will draw the lesson that it was not the message that was flawed, only the messenger, and try again.

Will the Fox News/Trump strategy of playing to the prejudices and fears and grievances of the white, male, working class be a winning recipe in a general election? White, working class males are less and less of the electorate every year. Democrats haven't won the white vote for years. President Obama lost it to Mitt Romney by 20 points and still won the presidency. The confidence one discerns among the Democrats is the confidence of demography.

Yesterday, however, I noted two recent posts at Politico that looked at the race in the swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio. No Republican has won Pennsylvania since 1988, but a recent poll in Luzerne County showed that while Obama won the country by five points against Romney, Trump is winning by 23 points. A 28-point swing in one cycle is the stuff of a political tsunami, and if those numbers are accurate, and if they are matched by similar numbers in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump could win the presidency, even if he loses Florida, by running the Rust Belt. Maybe it won't matter that he has no ground game. Maybe it won't matter that half of all Republican candidates do not want to be seen with him. There is the one question no one can answer: Will white working-class males turn out and vote in numbers we have not seen before and hand Trump the presidency because this year is simply not like other years?

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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