New York Magazine (Opinion)
By Jonathan Chait
May 3, 2016
It is fitting that Donald Trump has essentially locked up the Republican presidential nomination on the same day he made yet another bizarre and senseless (that is, lacking any discernible purpose) comment by accusing Ted Cruz’s father of having conspired to kill President Kennedy. The accusation, which originated from the pro-Trump National Enquirer, neatly encapsulates his peculiarity. There are a number of lunatic theories professed by most Republicans: the theory of anthropogenic global warming is a conspiracy concocted by scientists worldwide; the Reagan and Bush tax cuts caused revenue to increase; George W. Bush kept us safe from terrorism. But Trump advocates an entirely different set of crackpot beliefs that lie outside conservative ideology, and every attempt by his rivals to expose them has failed spectacularly. Having won Indiana, the last state where his rivals stood a chance to potentially derail him, and where they spent heavily to do so, Trump has a glide path to the convention. The largest trove of remaining delegates lies in California, which he no longer even needs to win, and where his lead has grown to some 30 points. It is as if Trump in his moment of conquest wants the Republicans to know that no quarter will be given, that he has conquered the party on his own, loopy terms.
The most surreal and characteristic moment of Trump’s presidential campaign may have taken place two months ago. That week, Mitt Romney had mocked Trump’s business acumen, highlighting his many failed ventures, including Trump Steaks, in a well-regarded and highly publicized speech that articulated both the horror with which Republican elites regarded Trump and their strategy for preventing him from capturing the nomination. A few days later, having won a series of victories, Trump appeared in his Mar-a-Lago resort to insist Trump Steaks were indeed a going concern. “Do we have steaks? We have Trump steaks. He said the steak company, and we have Trump steaks. And by the way, if you want to take one, we’ll charge you about, what, 50 bucks a steak?” It was not only a blatant lie, but a lie that required no sophistication at all to see through. One did not need a grasp of economics or public policy to understand that Trump Steaks is a no-longer-extant product. There are no advertisements for these steaks. They are not available for purchase anywhere. They do not exist. Trump simply had his staff purchase a bunch of steaks at a supermarket and display them on a table, and call them “Trump Steaks.” But — and here is the most incredible detail of all, the one that reveals just how blunt the Trump con is — his campaign did not even bother to completely remove the wrappers from the steaks they purchased. The steaks still had the labels from the local butcher from which they were purchased.
Most of America, including a significant minority of Republicans, have seen Trump’s candidacy exactly for the con it is. Trump for President is a category error. He is, as his rivals have described him, a charlatan, a con artist, a congenital liar, a man self-evidently unfit for office at any level, and especially the presidency. As George Will has argued, his unfitness is so manifest that it applies to anybody who considers him suitable for the office; a person is “unqualified for high office because he or she will think Trump is qualified.”
Even after those of us who initially dismissed Trump’s appeal came to terms with it, it seemed as though the anti-Trump wing of the party would at least put up a strong fight. It was only a few weeks ago that projections had Trump falling well short of the 1,237 delegates he would need to win a first-ballot vote. (In mid-April, Nate Silver, whose findings were typical, projected Trump finishing with around 1160.) Trump’s lead in California, the largest remaining source of delegates, was tenuous. Some semblance of order seemed likely to prevail. Even if that order took the form of the extremist Ted Cruz wrenching the nomination in some kind of chaotic scene, the Republican Party would still have wound up fulfilling the basic threshold duty of a functioning party: ensuring its presidential nomination had remained in the hands of a reasonably well-informed and indisputably sane person — not a giant, not a Lincoln, but at least one of the 10 or 20 million most qualified people in America, or at minimum, a certifiable non-sociopath.
But actual Republican voters have not seen things this way at all. Indeed, as the campaign has gone on, they have seen things this way less and less. Watching this happen has been astonishing. The GOP’s efforts to impose normalcy, or some facsimile thereof, have not only failed but backfired. Cruz and John Kasich finally split up the remaining territory in an attempt to jointly deny Trump a majority. Cruz also announced a joint ticket with Carly Fiorina, an effective performer who had avoided any attacks on fellow Republicans in the course of auditioning for a spot on the ticket. This was supposed to cast a vision of a broad-based, anybody-but-Trump ticket behind which a wide array of non-Trump Republicans could rally. The opposite occurred. In a recent recent poll, a mere 8 percent of Republican voters described themselves as “enthusiastic” about the ticket, and another 20 percent “comfortable”; a staggering 70 percent said it made them “uncomfortable” or “angry.” Republicans across the country have watched Cruz take the fight to Trump, and concluded that they really disliked … Cruz. The Texas senator has seen his favorable ratings plummet, while Trump’s have spiked upward:
Indiana seems to have proved that stopping Trump has the effect of making him stronger. Go along with Trump, and he wins; fight Trump, and he wins by even more. The only thing they can do now is further cripple their already historically weak nominee.
Meanwhile the premise of the anti-Trump campaign — that his personality and moral character fundamentally make him unfit the the presidency — has crumbled. It is not that Trump had disproved these criticisms. Far from it. Rather, more and more Republicans could not bring themselves to make this case. Indiana governor Mike Pence, whom conservatives hoped would rally conservatives in his state in the same way Scott Walker had in Wisconsin, instead served up an endorsement so tepid it may have done more harm than good. (“I’m not against anybody, but I will be voting for Ted Cruz in the upcoming Republican primary. I urge everyone to make up their own mind.”)
The Wall Street Journal editorial page disavowed a third-party right-wing candidacy, which conservatives had hoped to use as a fallback to rally the base. Even Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who had thrown himself into the anti-Trump cause with his customary Churchillian fervor — finally a case where his favorite historical analogy did not seem hysterically overwrought! — has begun edging away from the front lines. Asked about his professions to never support Trump, Kristol equivocated, “I mean, I guess never say never. On the one hand, I’ll say #NeverTrump, and on the other hand, I’ll say never say never.” Of course, the whole point of “Never Trump” is that you actually do have to say “never.”
Virtually the entire Republican apparatus will follow Trump sooner or later, because without the voters, they have no power. And those voters have revealed things about the nature of the party that many Republicans prefer to deny. Whatever abstract arguments for conservative policy — and these arguments exist, and a great many people subscribe to them earnestly — on the ground, Republican politics boils down to ethno-nationalistic passions ungoverned by reason. Once a figure has been accepted as a friendly member of their tribe, there is no level of absurdity to which he can stoop that would discredit him. And since reason cannot penetrate the crude tribalism that animates Republicans, it follows that nothing President Obama could have proposed on economic stimulus, health care, or deficits could have avoided the paroxysms of rage that faced him.
The paranoid mendacity of Joe McCarthy, the racial pandering of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and George Bush, the jingoism and anti-intellectualism of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin — all these forces have embodied the essence of American conservative politics as it is actually practiced (rather than as conservative intellectuals like to imagine it). Trump has finally turned that which was always there against itself.
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