At this point, little more than a week before the first GOP presidential smash-up, one must take a certain pity on the 15 candidates vying to overtake the race’s undisputed front-runner, New York real-estate tycoon and reality-TV star Donald Trump. Armed with a fortune somewhere between $3 billion and $10 billion, depending on whom you believe, and a cunning ability to seize the limelight, Trump has climbed to the top of a very crowded heap. He leads his nearest rival, Jeb Bush, by several points in the national polls and comes in first and second in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively. While his campaign outwardly lacks the appearance of a traditional effort, Trump has used his wealth to quietly buy up high-profile Republican staffers in early primary states, creating what is possibly the largest extant operation in the field.
Most significantly, he has dominated successive news cycles by making a series of ostentatiously offensive comments adroitly calibrated to be irresistible to the mainstream media, stir up the right-wing base, and troll the establishment of his own party. Since he jumped into the race on June 16, Trump has smeared undocumented immigrants from Mexico as “criminals, drug dealers, rapists”; ridiculed John McCain as “not a war hero” because “he was captured”; publicly revealed fellow candidate Lindsey Graham’s cellphone number in retaliation for Graham calling him a “jackass”; and patrolled the US-Mexican border in a baseball cap with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” putting himself in what he repeatedly insisted was “great danger.”
While a few GOP rivals, notably Bush and Marco Rubio, denounced some of his remarks, the dominant Republican reaction has been nervous embarrassment—followed by mass capitulation. As President Obama recently observed, GOP leaders are apparently trying to out-Trump Trump in an effort to push him out of the headlines. To wit, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (profiled by John Nichols on page 12) has promised to undo a widely lauded nuclear deal with Iran on “day one” of his presidency—the same day he hints at taking “military actions” against an unnamed enemy. Not to be outdone, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton compared Secretary of State John Kerry to Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion; Texas senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz predicted that the Obama administration would become “the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism”; and former Arkansas governor and White House aspirant Mike Huckabee warned that the deal would “take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven.” As of press time, no explicit references to Adolf Hitler have been made—yet.
While it’s tempting to laugh Trump off as an eccentric celebrity gadfly—or relegate coverage of his campaign to the entertainment pages, as the Huffington Post recently did in an unusually earnest fit of pique—there’s a reason why Trump is so far setting the tone for the Republican primary: More than any other candidate, he cynically and shamelessly panders to the party’s increasingly paranoid style. This element, sadly, can no longer be considered a fringe collection of refuseniks, denialists, birthers, repealers, and conspiracy-mongers; it’s now firmly in the GOP mainstream. While Trump was playing the militiaman in Laredo, Texas, for example, 235 House Republicans voted to pass the Enforce the Law for Sanctuary Cities Act (dubbed the “Donald Trump Act” by Democrats), which would block these cities from receiving federal law-enforcement aid—despite the fact that sanctuary cities are safer than others, and despite the fact that, pace Trump, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
As long as Republican leaders continue to rely on such demagoguery, it’s hard to see why conservative voters would prefer the C-SPAN version over the full Trump. And if the GOP does find itself with Donald Trump as its standard-bearer in the general election, it will have finally reaped what it has sown.