“Why Isn’t the G.O.P. Trying Harder to Beat Donald Trump?” asks the headline over a short piece of political analysis by Benjamin Wallace-Wells posted online this week by the New Yorker.
Establishment Republicans expected the Trump campaign to implode—but it didn’t, Wallace-Wells observes. Now Ted Cruz and Marc Rubio hammer each other while Trump floats above the fray, saying what he pleases when he pleases and getting away with it.
Take him on, says Wallace-Wells. Hound him. He spoke with Stuart Stevens, a strategist for Mitt Romney four years ago. When Newt Gingrich, opposing Romney for the Republican nomination, campaigned in Florida after carrying South Carolina, he was shadowed by a Romney surrogate who held his own news conferences and called Gingrich out every time Gingrich spoke. Was a man who once asked his wife for an open marriage really the President that Republicans wanted? Would they back a “serial philanderer?”
Romney won Florida by 15 percentage points.
But Stevens observes that Trump’s opponents are letting him have his way. Wallace-Wells writes, “When Trump turned on the Pope, no religious leaders were brought in to point out that this was an attack on the notion, essential to politics in South Carolina, that faith ought to be present in the public square.”
Stevens told Wallace-Wells, “They could have crushed him on that. They didn’t try.”
What I see is a Republican Party in a state of near paralysis beginning to reconcile itself to its fate. Congressman Chris Collins of New York, formerly a Jeb Bush supporter, just endorsed Trump, “Donald Trump is the individual as president that can lead this country and reclaim our great state and provide a bright future for our children,” he told CNN.
Many moderate Republicans—and some horrified Democrats—take comfort in telling themselves Trump doesn’t necessarily believe anything he says (though others are concerned that Trump doesn’t necessarily believe in anything at all). The Tribune‘s Clarence Page observes that a moderate Republican case for Trump—I’ll call it a rationalization that is going to look better and better to them—has been around for months. It was last July when conservative historian Bruce Bartlett wrote an essay for Politico called “The Moderate Republican’s Case for Donald Trump.” Bartlett wrote, “It is only after a landslide loss by Trump that the GOP can win the White House again.”
The party has to fall apart before it can be put back together.
Bartlett cast Hillary Clinton as the firewall between the American people and the disaster of a Trump presidency. Today that firewall doesn’t look as formidable. As Rex Huppke writes in the Thursday Tribune:
[Trump] enters Super Tuesday like a roaring, preposterous freight train. Republicans don’t look like they can take him down, and the Democrats’ current firewall between that Trump train and the White House is a candidate most people don’t trust and a socialist whose core voters will turn out unless it happens to be spring break.
When the biggest thing Americans have to fear is fear itself, it’s disconcerting how frightened we can be. Trump’s base of support, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams reported on Politico last month, is authoritarian Americans. “Authoritarians obey,” MacWilliams wrote. “They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.”
Which they do—and they’re not alone. Aside from authoritarianism, MacWilliams found one other variable contributing significantly to Trump’s support—fear of terrorism. “Take activated authoritarians from across the partisan spectrum and the growing cadre of threatened non-authoritarians,” MacWilliams wrote, “then add them to the base of Republican general election voters, and the potential electoral path to a Trump presidency becomes clearer.”
What we have here, I think, is an election beset by two boogeymen: the first is ISIS, which gives people the willies and makes a lot of us eager to hide behind a tough guy who’ll take care of things. The other boogieman is Trump himself, who cannot be stopped! Whether they’re for him or against him, people are frightened. The most attractive thing about the Bernie Sanders campaign might be the sanctuary it offers to idealists.