The GOP’s implosion was entirely avoidable, if anyone had read the signs.
By Victor Davis Hanson // National Review Online
Well before Donald Trump entered the race, there were lots of warning signs that the Republican party was on the road to perdition.
After the marathon 20 debates of 2012, with the ten or so strange candidates who brawled and embarrassed themselves, there had to be some formula to avoid repeating that mob-like mess. Instead, in 2016 there were 17 candidates and 13 debates along with seven forums. There were supposed to be tweaks and repairs that were designed to avoid the clown-like cavalcade of four years ago, but they apparently only ensured a repetition.
Three of the most experienced candidates, at least in the art of executive governance — Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker — were among the first to get out. The most experienced government CEOs somehow (or logically?) performed poorly in the raucous debates and lacked the charisma or the money or at least the zealous followers of Cruz, Rubio, and Trump.
Or they had too much pride (or sense) — unlike Carson, Christie, Kasich, and Paul — to insist that they were viable candidates when fairly early on, by most measurements, they were not. How strange that those who would have been more credible candidates saw the writing on the wall and left the field — to those marginalized candidates who had no such qualms and ended up wasting months of their time and ours in splintering the vote, engaging in endless bickering on crowded stages, and ensuring that there were few occasions for any of them to distinguish himself. At some point, someone should confess that Democratic debates further Democratic causes far more than Republican debates help Republican causes.
The other veteran governor in the race, Jeb Bush, may have felt, at 63 years old and eight years after the end of his brother’s administration, that his presidential ambitions — born in the pre-Trump-announcement days — were now or never. But after the failures of McCain and Romney, the hard left drift of the country, and the spectacle of utter chaos on the border, political correctness run amuck, the huge debt, Obamacare, and the implosion of the Middle East, primary voters were in no mood for another sober and judicious establishmentarian, however decent Jeb sounded. The unfortunate outcome of the 2016 Bush campaign and its affiliates was spending several million dollars to help destroy the candidacy of fellow Floridian Senator Marco Rubio. That did nothing for Bush and only further empowered Donald Trump. Never in all his business days has an enemy of Trump’s proved so helpful to him.
Then there was the strange career of Chris Christie. His campaign was an odd mixture of bullying and New Jersey tough-guy schtick with temporizing and split-the-difference politicking in a year of take-no prisoners politics. His bluster was Trumpian, but he was no Trump-like showman — and he ended only with another destructive legacy of tearing down others without helping himself. His mean-spirited candidacy confirmed that his 2012 ill-timed hug of President Obama in the hours before the election was no accident. His gratuitous attack on Rubio — followed by his obsequious lapdog role with Trump (who does not suffer toadies gladly) — proved kamikaze-like, blowing up the attacker while damaging somewhat his target.
Then there was the Republican establishment’s assumption that the supernova Trump would on its own burn out by last autumn. That was an odd expectation for a variety of reasons. Did no one remember the gubernatorial campaigns of the similar celebrity blowhards Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura? Did the Republicans forget that just because TV or movie personalities may prove failures in office does not mean that they cannot get elected, at least one time? The Apprentice may be schlock TV, but it would be impossible to continue a narcissistic reality franchise for 14 seasons without having a P. T. Barnum genius for discerning a fickle public’s shifting tastes. In normal times, a presidential candidate on a debate stage implying that his phallus was large would be seen as a crude and uncouth disqualification for the job; in Trump’s view, it is an LBJ-like reassurance that a real hunk would be president.
It was brilliant for Trump to boast that he would take no tainted campaign money — on the assumption that his celebrity glitz would obviate that need anyway by ensuring him hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity. Smarter still were his pouts and threats and occasional outbursts to journalists, which in passive-aggressive fashion terrified the supposedly courageous media; as a result, timid journalists treated him as if they were sitting next to a smiling cobra, who could hiss and strike at any moment.
Trump cleverly contradicted and sometimes even retracted his loonier pronouncements, which had the effect of making him “flexible” and “realistic” rather than an extremist or at least a flip-flopper and hypocrite. As politicos derided the fact that Trump had no advisers, senior wise men, or planned Cabinet members, Trump smiled: The supposed void was honey to has-been party fixtures and careerists, who flocked in and provided “legitimacy,” each imagining himself the new brain implanted in the Frankenstein monster.
Nor did party pros fathom that precisely because Trump was not wedded to any ideology, it was that much easier for him to emerge in 2016 in a new incarnation as a fed-up populist insurrectionist, who appeared to be the “real” rebel conservative in the race. In other words, once Trump entered the campaign, his politics would become as fluid as Ross Perot’s idiosyncratic 1992 bid, but this time even more so, given that the fed-up challenger was a Republican insider maverick. In a year when wealth and privilege were looked askance upon, Trump turned privilege on its head: It takes the people’s rich man to know how corrupt rich men have rigged the system.
It required ten debates and a winnowed-down field for other candidates finally to do to Trump what they had already done to one another. And by then the desperate level of invective needed to damage the Trump locomotive ensured that the attacker appeared as mean-spirited as Trump himself. Marco Rubio, a decent sort, has by his playground attacks seriously wounded Trump, but by matching Trump smear for smear probably also fatally hobbled his own candidacy. Odder still, at about the time that Republicans were wising up that Trump’s shenanigans, incoherence, and puerility needed to be fully exposed, he was already shedding his lizard skin and growing a front-runner magnanimous exoskeleton. The day-late-and-dollar-short attacks were now falling on a sometimes “presidential” Trump, and not on the cruder Trump that had so richly earned them just weeks earlier.
The final act was the subtext of the entire primary season: Trump, with 30 to 35 percent of the vote, besting all comers, who among them garnered two-thirds of the Republican vote. Even as the fickle media shouted nightly that Trump was the new face of a new Republican party, voters throughout the summer and fall of 2015 quietly wondered when the opposition would unite and bury Trump 2 to 1. But egos and careers are powerful narcotics, never clearer than in a Bush, a Carson, or a Kasich for months assuring the media and the public that their 5 percent showings were proof that they were ascendant.
We are left with a few unanswered questions: Will there soon be a deal between Rubio and Cruz, in which the latter will informally buy the former’s delegate share for the price of an important appointment? And if this were done adroitly, would Reagan Democrats then see that Cruz is a populist himself, or would they still instead view him as a Trump-slaying Beltway, Ivy League ideologue whose principles were not blue-collar friendly, leaving them with no reason to come out and vote in November?
If Cruz fades again, will those establishmentarians who walk out on Trump prove more numerous than the Reagan Democrats who will walk in?
Is Trump’s continued skilled hijacking of the Republican party a sign that he could similarly hijack the general election — and the presidency?
Lost in this tragicomedy is the fact that either Cruz or Rubio might beat Hillary Clinton — or, stranger still, that many conservatives could not stomach a nominated Trump, whose latest positions, on paper at least, are far more conservative than are Clinton’s. And if Clinton is indicted — or if a failure to indict is followed by resignations in the FBI — would then even Trump easily win, and, if so, would his own party consider that rare Republican presidential victory a windfall or a curse? Is the Buckley-inspired conservative rule of choosing the most conservative candidate who can realistically win still valid?
Finally, the stop-Trump furor of the Republican establishment was privately predicated on Rubio as the alternative. That may be quite unlikely, given Cruz’s frequent Phoenix-like surges. If Cruz manages to beat Trump, will those who signed petitions damning Trump now rally behind the nominee — or do they consider Cruz also too quirky and polarizing, and, if so, are they really neo-liberals rather than neo-cons?