While flipping through McKay Coppins’s book The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House it is easy to close your eyes and envision what the GOP’s Presidential nominating contest could have looked like: a telegenic young Florida Senator who had championed immigration reform debating with an ardent libertarian who supports privacy rights over foreign wars, a bilingual elder statesman lobbying for education reform and big tent conservatism squaring off against an Indian-American Governor of a blood-red state, a silver-tongued double Ivy graduate and former Supreme Court clerk voicing the frustrations of an electorate fed up with the Washington establishment dueling with a former tech CEO who was once one of the leading female executives in the country.
That debate, a relatively sober, yet sharp conversation about the future of our country, how our money is spent, where we deploy our troops, how we help those in need and what we do about those in our country illegally would have elevated the discourse in a party that has lost the popular vote in five of the last six Presidential elections, but sadly, it was not meant to be. A tsunami of bile and invective spewed from the mouth of an all-id billionaire named Donald Trump consumed every molecule of oxygen available for months on end, leaving the best laid plans of party leaders in ruins and a reality TV star at the head of an army of discontented voters clamoring for high walls to keep out Mexicans, a ban on Muslims entering the country, and a visceral disdain for anything that vaguely smelled of the dreaded “establishment.”
Surely, when Coppins signed a contract with Little, Brown in June 2013 to examine how the Republican party would attempt to reclaim the White House in 2016, neither he nor they foresaw Trump’s rise. After all, the GOP was just 8 months removed from getting its clock cleaned in the 2012 election, 3 months past the issuance of a report by a a blue ribbon panel of party elders that concluded Republicans needed to do more to attract the votes of African-Americans, Hispanics, and women, and President Obama had seemingly vanquished Trump from public life with a withering takedown at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. Against this backdrop, it certainly made sense for the writer to spend time with people like Bobby Jindal, who had noted that the GOP needed to stop being the “stupid” party, Paul Ryan, who emerged unscathed from the smoldering ruin of the Romney campaign, and Rand Paul, who TIME Magazine dubbed “the most interesting man in politics” in October 2014.
Coppins’s research and effort is on display throughout his book, it just turned out to be largely beside the point. We get the deep dive into biographical minutiae like the exorcism Jindal participated in, Paul’s bizarre “Aqua Buddha” incident from college, the oppo research on Rubio that was never released (but that Coppins eagerly does), and Jeb Bush’s transformation from entitled rich boy to humbled public servant (eye roll). While the breadth of Coppins’s research is admirable (poor guy fished out Jindal’s Oxford thesis that supported a health care plan that looks suspiciously like Obamacare) his word choice suggests a penchant for playing favorites. Marco Rubio is described as having “unparalleled skill” as a communicator (debatable) while Paul Ryan is “genial” and “good natured.” Coppins seems particularly taken with the now House Speaker. He goes on for several chapters lauding Ryan’s listening tour to learn about how ex-offenders and drug addicts access treatment in the community while giving a one paragraph blow off to the fact that the budgets and tax policies Ryan supported after this little policy jag bore no resemblance to the needs of these men and women.
While it is understandable that some characters may be more compelling (or likable than others), I was more troubled by the absence of attribution throughout much of the book. The sourcing stems from Coppins’s interviews with the candidates or those around them reconstructed or summarized except where quotations are used; however, the book has no endnotes or footnotes and the sources are rarely identified by name, leaving the book with an impressionistic feel that permits thumb-on-the-scale descriptions by the author that poo poohs Ron Paul as a “kooky gadfly” but Jeb Bush as a sober elder statesman. It is this type of Acela Corridor thinking that created a blind spot in the media’s collective reporting on the GOP, dismissed Trump and refused to concede he had kneecapped Bush with a few strategic insults.
Moreover, the book makes a few declarative statements that are at best misleading and at worst, flat wrong. A discussion of the government shutdown describes the fall-out as the government’s inability to pay its bills, which is not technically true; rather, it results in employees not being able to go to work. At another point, Coppins claims that Ryan was “a few hundred thousand swing state votes” from being elected Vice President. This is not only demonstrably false, but the predicate before it, of Ryan’s feeling self-conscious while visiting a church that helps those in need, is a perfect illustration of the attribution failure described above. Lastly, because the book had a delivery due date, it already feels outdated. Cruz, who has rocketed to second place to Trump and who none other than Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman has identified as the likely Republican nominee, is referred to as a “footnote” by Coppins and Governor Chris Christie, languishing in the polls when The Wilderness went to print, is now surging in New Hampshire.
Ultimately, the main failing of Coppins’s book is the same one that has bedeviled the Republican party and the Beltway cognoscenti - their collective failure to anticipate Trump’s meteoric rise fueled by the deep antipathy many in the GOP feel toward their own leaders. To be sure, there were hints along the way that Coppins highlights - Cruz’s kamikaze government shutdown effort, Dave Brat’s out-of-nowhere takedown of Eric Cantor, even Trump’s appearance at an Iowa “cattle call” in early 2015 where he flatly stated the party could not nominate another member of the Bush family - but instead of focusing on these clues, much of the book lingers on also rans who never made an impact on the race. Bobby Jindal is portrayed as both a serious man of faith and one who blithely jettisoned his reputation for wonkishness when it was clear his message was not selling with the base. Rand Paul’s brand of libertarian tinged Republicanism is shaded in the Oedipal struggle he felt with his father, but ultimately, the “libertarian moment” that the pundit class keeps claiming is going to happen when a Paul family member runs for President never materialized.
In this way, The Wilderness offers an interesting examination of a political party that does not actually exist while maintaining a blinkered view of what caused Trump’s rise. Indeed, but for a single chapter that probes into the darker recesses of right-wing thought and a couple of paragraphs at the end of the book that spotlight this phenomenon, The Wilderness is surprisingly light on what seems an axiomatic idea - that whatever humility Republicans felt after Obama’s re-election receded when the party suffered no political consequences for the 2013 government shutdown and gained seats in the 2014 Congressional elections. These results, coupled with the party’s massive gains at the state level during Obama’s time in the White House and the fall of both John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the top two Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, emboldened the right wing, not cowed it. While most GOP candidates for President were busy running the same establishment playbook, Trump upended the conventional wisdom and swooped into the chasm that exists between the most ardent Republican voters in the hinterlands and the party’s leadership in Washington. A book that told that story would have been a worthy addition to the nascent canon of 2016 reporting.
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