For months I’ve had a vague, disjointed lack of shock at Donald Trump’s continued frontrunner status despite a slew of seemingly disqualifying bigoted, xenophobic statements. I haven’t been surprised, but somehow couldn’t formulate a coherent opinion as to why I wasn’t surprised; I’ve been bewildered about my lack of bewilderment.
Paul Krugman, in a Monday, December 21 op-ed in The New York Times, finally broke down the barriers in my brain by explaining why this election cycle’s big surprise should be anything but:
Bluster and belligerence as substitutes for analysis, disdain for any kind of measured response, [and] dismissal of inconvenient facts reported by the “liberal media” didn’t suddenly arrive on the Republican scene last summer. On the contrary, they have long been key elements of the party brand.
Krugman goes on to point to Trump as a logical usurper of the sort of swagger-over-substance politicking that began with George W. Bush’s post-9/11 posturing and continued with John McCain’s selection of the comically unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. Krugman’s conclusion is the realization that
“[Donald Trump] isn’t someone who suddenly intruded into Republican politics from an alternative universe. He, or someone like him, is where the party has been headed for a long time.”
It’s an insightful piece from a talented columnist, and goes a long way toward offering a satisfactory explanation for why the crude, egomaniacal Trump, dismissed as a blip on the radar six months ago, is now the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination just six weeks from the official start of primary season. The latest CNN poll, announced December 23, has Trump with a staggering 21-point lead nationally over second-place Ted Cruz.
Using Krugman’s theory of GOP de-evolution as a foundation, I find it easier to paint a more grounded portrait of a man that, on the campaign trail, seems anything but grounded. In considering how Donald Trump came to prominence and, from there, precisely what that means for the Republican Party’s immediate future, one characterization moves to the forefront.
Donald Trump is, literally, the GOP’s Grim Reaper.
The Donald has massed the lead heard ‘round the political world by harvesting a base of Republican voters whose roots were planted more than a decade ago and, ever since, have been meticulously manicured with misinformation.
They are the GOP’s GMOs. Distracted, disserved and flat-out lied to by conservative politicians, broadcast outlets and websites, today’s Republican base consists of tens of millions of voters who ascribe to “facts” – urgent threats from undocumented immigrants, insufficient asylum protocol allowing terrorists easy admission, Planned Parenthood facilities selling fetuses for profit – that simply aren’t true. Along the way, they’ve been systematically modified to disbelieve any and all things that Democratic politicians say and “liberal media” outlets like the New York Times report. Contrarian evidence need not apply.
The misinformed are more dangerous than the ignorant because, while the ignorant simply don’t know anything, the misinformed have rock-solid beliefs in wrong things. That said, the misinformed are more easily manipulated by those capable of using their incorrect assumptions for personal gain.
Enter Donald Trump, who has proven genius at giving voice to a white, lower-middle-class Republican base whose thirst for a strongman has gone unquenched since the days of Dubya, and whose belligerence has been building to a near-boil ever since a black man entered the White House. In doing so, Trump is only saying what they are already thinking and, thanks to his lifelong talent for hoarding publicity, communicating these points more effectively – and far more loudly – than his opponents.
We’ll never know whether establishment Republicans (isn’t it hysterical that, compared to Trump, even Ted Cruz is “establishment”?) could have nipped all this in the bud at his candidacy’s infancy. This is because Trump’s lies – Mexican rapists, Muslims in Jersey City celebrating 9/11, his toupee – were an easy sell to a base trained to distrust official sources and blame others for their diminished status in a changing America.
In retrospect, it is understandable – even inevitable – that a savvy salesman like Trump was able to convince a sizable swath of Republicans to lump his “insider” GOP rivals into the already-large set of politicians and media outlets who, since they weren’t espousing unvarnished truths, couldn’t possibly offer real solutions. No one should be shocked that the same folks who regularly tune in to Rush Limbaugh are intrigued by Trump’s angry, insulting machismo masquerading as policy.
Now for the “Grim” part.
Grim for the GOP, that is. And that’s because Donald Trump isn’t going away.
This isn’t a presumptuous prediction, but rather an educated assessment based on the dots Krugman so eloquently connected. It’s also the sum of several comparably obvious conclusions.
First, Trump’s fellow contenders for the GOP nomination either don’t know how to deal with him or, just as importantly, have already missed their chance to do so. Early in the race the other candidates, afraid of being belligerently berated by a man who literally insulted and fired people for a living, thought it better to lay low and wait for the bubble to burst. It hasn’t – and now suddenly attacking Trump looks exactly like the desperate Hail Mary it is. A large enough percentage of the GOP base, already skeptical of “establishment” politicians, will dismiss these pleas for moderation to counteract Trump’s demagoguery.
Second, a talented manipulator like Trump only gets better at endearing himself to an audience the longer he stands in front of it. He is the most disciplined of loose cannons, one capable of stripping away the coded conservative language of bigotry by declaring himself the antidote for a politically correct culture his overwhelmingly white, undereducated base has grown to disdain. He knows exactly when to fire off a new round to keep free media exposure focused squarely on him.
Third, this is a numbers game, and nobody in the weak GOP field is as masterful a mathematician as Donald J. Trump. He’s done the calculations, and clearly sees that a high enough percentage of the Republican base – not an outright majority, but a very significant number – have latched onto him as a brash voice among the carefully scripted. Trump knows that the tactics he is employing are his best bet to win the nomination.
Those same numbers spell the grimmest of news for the GOP. Because the problem with brainwashing your base is that it only works on your base. Donald Trump, the GOP’s Grim Reaper, stands zero chance of attracting the more reality-rooted general election voters. His is a harvest of the hoodwinked and, should he finish reaping what the GOP has sown before him, Republican hopes for winning the presidency will be a barren field.