It was, I suspect, intended to strike a serious blow to the Trump candidacy.
In the opening moments of last week’s Fox debate, Bret Baier asked a question ostensibly directed at all ten candidates but in fact targeted at The Donald: Here, in the same Cleveland arena where the Republican Party will nominate its 2016 candidate, would any of you on the stage refuse to commit to backing that eventual nominee for president, especially since an independent run would all but guarantee a Democratic victory?
Trump looked around for a brief moment and then raised his hand, setting off boos from the largely Republican audience. Yet even after that admission of disloyalty, and even after his subsequent ugly confrontation with Fox News, polls indicate that Trump still holds a double-digit lead among GOP voters and may even be expanding his margin.
How is this even possible?
It’s important to begin by repeating this caveat: Trump will not be the Republican candidate. Despite his bluster, it’s also unlikely that he will show the patience and diligence needed to launch a meaningful third-party candidacy, although it remains a possibility. An independent bid would require, among other things, the building of a campaign infrastructure capable of producing and airing ads, navigating state ballot laws, etc., and to date Trump has shown no stomach for such necessary minutiae. His “campaign” is more akin to a seat-of-the-pants personality cult than an honest effort at winning.
Nonetheless, he has clearly tapped into something powerful. Despite his excesses, other GOP candidates have been wary of attacking him, often praising him for expressing the anger that many in the party feel even if they disagree with how he puts it. It’s also worth nothing that the GOP candidate who has been most aggressive in condemning Trump, former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, is now laying off all of his paid staff because of a lack of money.
Trump thrives in a GOP campaign despite his lack of party loyalty because many of his supporters have themselves become disenchanted with their party. According to a recent Pew poll, the approval rating for the Republican Party is at 32 percent, its lowest since 1992, the year of Ross Perot. (The Democratic Party comes in at 48 percent approval.) And much of that GOP decline reflects a loss of support among Republicans themselves. According to Pew, “positive views of the GOP among Republicans have declined 18 percentage points since January.”
It’s hard to tease out underlying trends from the spectacle that is Trump, but here’s what may be going on:
The modern conservative movement is founded upon a symbiotic relationship between two somewhat dissimilar groups with dissimilar goals. For decades now, the movement has served to validate and give voice to a sense of resentment and loss among its largely white, male constituency; the political support generated by that approach is then converted into backing for the interests of the pro-business financiers who fund its campaigns and support system. (Nowhere is that arrangement more obvious than in the funding of the Tea Party “Americans for Prosperity,” a supposedly “grass-roots” organization largely financed and run by the Koch brothers.)
At some point, though, “validate and give voice to” comes to seem an insufficient reward. The party’s rhetoric about “taking back our country,” thus rescuing it from the scourge of liberalism, carries the implication that at some point effective action will and must be taken if the republic is to survive. But despite total GOP control of Congress and a supposedly conservative Supreme Court, no successful action is ever taken.
ObamaCare hasn’t been repealed or struck down; Obama himself remains president, with no effort at impeachment for his supposedly brutal assault on the Constitution; the government hasn’t been shut down; gay marriage has become the law of the land; abortion remains a constitutionally protected right; Planned Parenthood is still funded, with Mitch McConnell saying that he won’t allow it to become an excuse for a shutdown; illegal immigrants aren’t being deported by the millions. Most of all, the reviled Hillary Clinton, she-wolf of Benghazi, is eying a return to the White House, this time not as a First Lady but as president and commander in chief.
For years now, the base has been fired up with warnings that these are issues of existential importance to the country that they love. Yet they are also told that those very same goals are not important enough to expend political capital in pursuing. The cognitive dissonance is startling. As Newt Gingrich observed last week, rising anger is a product of “an enormous gap between what the legislative process is delivering and what the conservative wing of the Republican Party wants.”
In short, the realization is sinking in that they are being played, that the base has been promised many many things that the party has no intent or capability of delivering. The result is deep frustration. It may even be dawning among some in the conservative base that while their own priorities get mere lip service, those of their partners in Wall Street and corporate America have been all but fully realized.
Since the 2008 bailout, corporate after-tax profits are at an all-time high, the gap between the rich and the rest is growing and thanks to Citizens United the billionaires have politicians at their beck and call, haughtily summoning them to audition for them as if candidates for president of the United States were mere actors begging their bosses for a role. “I think it’s very frightening,” as Gingrich also put it. “I don’t think the Founding Fathers intended for the U.S. to be an oligarchy.”
Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t do auditions. He can’t be bought; if political influence is to be bought and sold in a corrupt system, he will be the one doing the buying. Trump doesn’t color within the lines dictated by political correctness, nor does he acknowledge any limits or complications. Caution of the sort practiced by McConnell and John Boehner is for losers — weak, pathetic losers.
In short, if you take the frustrations of a substantial segment of the GOP base and give them human form, they would be Jeb Bush, like Mitt Romney the mild embodiment of transactional politics. He is what angers them most about their party, and Trump is his antithesis. Trump turns the validation and expression of resentment up to 11 on the Nigel Tufnel scale, and the tragic part for his supporters is that he is even less equipped to make good on his inflammatory rhetoric than are those milquetoast leaders whose leadership they find so wanting.
They are being sold the same bill of goods, but by a more audacious, shameless salesman.