It gets exhausting writing about Donald J. Trump. Almost as exhausting as watching “the shows” spout conventional wisdom about why he is doing well and what the Republican party plans on doing to stop him. Were he what the inside the Beltway crowd has convinced themselves he is - some sort of sui generis mash up of Huey Long, George Wallace, and Benito Mussolini, it would be easy to dismiss his popularity as a one-off. A perfect storm of personality and moment, that point at which the dying gasp of (mostly) disaffected white voters railed against a system and party it thinks has abandoned it to free trade and multiculturalism while showing its belly to the world by refusing to lead the fight against capital R, capital I, capital T radical Islamic terrorism.
But such analysis is simply too facile (and false). That thesis ignores Trump’s across-the-board (not to mention geographical) success. While it is true that Trump cleaned up in the deep South, and particularly in areas with fewer college graduates, he also prevailed in places like Illinois, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Connecticut - all of which have heterogenous electorates where Trump garnered the votes of CEOs and their workers alike. Indeed, were Trump anyone other than Trump, a candidate whose victories spanned such a diverse segment of age, income, and geography, the chattering class would have deemed this race over long ago.
But the Republicans’ attempt to separate themselves from Trump has been equally foolhardy. House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a speech this week bemoaning the tenor of the political debate in this country, but Ryan’s apologia missed the forest for the trees. The Republicans do not have a messaging problem but rather, a message problem. When you support restricting voting rights, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, shutting down abortion clinics, and show antipathy toward gays and lesbians, it should be no surprise that your party struggles to elect a President in a national election. Yet, because Republicans have successfully gerrymandered House districts to a point where their incumbents are more threatened in primaries than general elections and have scooped up Governor’s mansions and state legislatures, they have shown little interest in considering why their Presidential results are so poor.
The Republican “fever” Obama hopefully claimed would break in 2012 has instead deepened. It is not just Trump’s rise, but in the Senate’s refusal to take up his nominee to the Supreme Court, the almost instantaneous condemnations that flow from the mouths of Republicans in the wake of things like terrorist attacks in other countries and the boilerplate rhetoric of almost every Republican nominee for President not named Trump questioning everything from Obama’s loyalty to the country to whether he is subverting the Constitution that is indicative of mainstream Republican thought - Trump is simply refracting that ugliness back in a coarser, purer way.
Even as Trump marches inexorably toward the nomination, plans are afoot to insulate down ballot candidates from what party elders fear will be Trump’s landslide defeat in November. Endangered incumbents like Mark Kirk and Kelly Ayotte are already making the pivot to try and show they are bipartisan in an effort to appeal to voters who might otherwise punish them for their obstruction of President Obama. And such a strategy may work. Republicans are far more invested in framing Trump as an invader out of step with its party’s orthodoxy than in seeing him as a representation of it.
Instead of addressing the cancer inside its own party, Republicans can rely on an incurious media that missed Trump’s appeal entirely and has written his political obituary over and over again to no avail. This should not be surprising. For years, the media poo-pooed the unprecedented tactics deployed by Congressional Republicans; instead using their all too comfortable “both sides do it” frame even as Obama was demeaned in the basest ways, insulted before a joint session of Congress, and his very legitimacy as a U.S. citizen called into question. That off-year elections, which skewed older and white, swelled Republican ranks in both houses of Congress did not hurt either. This toxic brew created the virus that now infects the GOP, but the thing about pathogens is they cannot thrive without a host body. In the Republican Party, Trump found a fertile breeding ground.
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