There is stinging irony in Republican establishment’s fear of Donald Trump. As Trump’s bombast continues to bomb the rest of the GOP presidential field, Republican elders are preparing a strategy for a rare contested convention in which they will unite to stop him.
Should the New York billionaire emerge from Cleveland with the nomination, Republican Party and congressional leaders know hel could explode the party’s appeal beyond a core of disaffected, white, middle-age voters and take down legions of GOP candidates. That is a scary scenario and party leaders are rightfully concerned. But they really can’t claim to be surprised. Donald J. Trump is a threat of their own invention, the product of prejudices they they’ve stirred to their advantage for decades.
There isn’t any real difference between Chris Christie saying he would turn away an orphaned Syrian child refugee and Trump calling for barring all Muslims from entry in the United States. And Trump’s talk of giant walls on the border with Mexico and deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants is not so different from congressional Republicans rejecting an immigration reform bill because it did not take extraordinary steps to secure the southern border and step up deportations. And the complaint that Trump is a coarse outsider appealing to working-class whites’ fears rings hollow from a party that nominated for vice president the political neophyte Sarah Palin, a candidate who reveled in being at rallies with “real Americans.”
Trump’s appeal to xenophobia and Islamaphobia is merely a new play on the GOP’s dog whistling about race, a silent summons that’s occasionally been audible during the tenure of the nation’s first black president. Those themes are all entwined in the call to “take our country back.” Back from whom and to whom?
Since President Lyndon Johnson surrendered the Democratic South by backing civil rights for African Americans, the GOP has used the formula honed by Lee Atwater, Roger Ailes and Karl Rove to divide and conquer. First it was over race, then it added gay rights and now anxieties about immigrants and Muslims. Trump didn’t invent that approach. His rising candidacy was invented by it.
But it is important that the Trump phenomenon is not solely a George Wallace-like flare fueled by resentments and prejudice. If Trump is using the GOP’s play book, he’s also filling a vacuum. However manipulative he may be, Trump is willing to take chances and rely on his instincts. He’s separating himself from the rest of the field – and indeed from Hillary Clinton – by taking his own path without the cautious guidance of consultants and the need to pander to donors.
Trump is showing cunning, guts and leadership. It’s leadership in the wrong direction. And its loud-mouth conviction without sincerity. But it has an air of authenticity and raw candor that had been thoroughly drained from American politics.
The political creature called Trump is an assemblage of subtle appeals made blunt and an old-time, soap-box bravado restored. His politics are bad, but there may be good in the way he’s forced buried appeals to the surface and compelled Americans to decide who they are.
But that’s only true, of course, if this GOP Frankenstein isn’t first across the 2016 finish line.