A return to Reaganite roots looks unlikely as the nominee transforms the party in his own image.
OCT 20, 2016
Donald Trump began the final presidential debate in what was, for him, an unexpected fashion. He was subdued, spoke calmly, and sounded like a conventional Republican. He promised to oppose abortion, support the Second Amendment, and appoint Supreme Court justices who “will interpret the Constitution the way the founders wanted it interpreted.”
But about halfway through the mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner transformed into the Hulk, raging against his opponent and reality itself. In the second half of the debate, Trump made one crazy, false statement after another. It was a farrago of falsehoods the likes of which no one has ever seen … since Trump’s last debate. What does it tell you about the future of the Republican Party that so many ordinary Republicans seemed to thrill to his misstatements and vicious attacks?
No, Donald, the State Department did not “lose” $6 billion; it is missing paperwork, not money. No, you did not oppose the Iraq War in advance. No, we do not take better care of illegal immigrants than we do of veterans. No, NATO members are not spending more on defense because of your threats to leave NATO; it’s because they fear Russian aggression. No, NAFTA has not been a “disaster”; it’s been aneconomic boon for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. No, the numerous women accusing you of groping them have not been “largely debunked”; they’ve been defamed by you and your surrogates, which is not the same thing. No, it’s not an open question as to “whether it is Russia, China or anybody else” that is hacking into Democratic Party emails; the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia is responsible. No, Aleppo has not “fallen”; that embattled Syrian city continues to resist an onslaught from the Assad and Putin regimes.
The disastrous second half of the debate culminated in Trump’s attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the U.S. political system by conflating flawed record-keeping with evidence of fraud, claiming that the “corrupt” media are poisoning people against him, and asserting that Hillary Clinton “shouldn’t be allowed to run” because “she’s guilty of a very, very serious crime.” Because the system is supposedly “rigged,” he refused to commit to conceding defeat. “I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”
Almost as bad, during a discussion of Social Security, Trump broke into Clinton’s statement to sneer: “Such a nasty woman.”
How could Trump say so many demented things? It’s not simply that he is out of his mind — although that disquieting possibility cannot be entirely dismissed. To a degree I would not have believed possible before this year, he is reflecting and channeling a substantial portion of the Republican base.
These are the voters who thrill to his protectionism and isolationism, his bashing of immigrants and Muslims, his scorched-earth tactics, and his reliance on “facts” manufactured out of whole cloth by conspiracy websites such as Breitbart and Infowars. For this section of the electorate, Trump is not a freak or embarrassment. He is their champion, their voice, the one who is finally saying on a debate stage what “cucks” like Mitt Romney and John McCain were too wimpy to say. The crazier Trump acts, the more he solidifies his base, even as he repels middle-of-the-road voters.
Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan may hope that after Trump’s inevitable defeat the party will return to their brand of conservatism — in favor of free trade and American leadership abroad, cutting government spending and taxes, a balanced approach to immigration, and making deals where possible with centrist Democrats. But that’s not a safe assumption anymore. Trump is transforming the GOP in his own image.
In a new Bloomberg poll of likely Republican voters, asked whether Trump or Ryan better represents “their view of what the Republican Party should stand for,” 51% picked Trump and only 33% Ryan. Another 15% weren’t sure. As for who they want to be the future face of the GOP, 51% picked either Trump or his running mate Mike Pence. Another 19% picked Ted Cruz, a quasi-isolationist extremist in his own right. Only a quarter of those surveyed chose a moderate champion — 15% for Ryan, 10% for John Kasich. And to ensure that Ryan’s brand of optimistic conservatism doesn’t carry the day, the influential broadcaster Sean Hannity is encouraging Tea Party fundamentalists to challenge Ryan for the speakership.
Perhaps Trump will fade away after the election and the Republican Party will return to its Reaganite roots. But such survey findings suggest a strong possibility that instead the GOP, or at least a substantial portion of it, could continue veering toward the fringe, muttering darkly about how Trump was robbed of his rightful victory. If that is the case, then the Republican Party may not survive the Trump takeover.