Quotes of the day

Donald Trump, defying skeptics and overcoming an avalanche of mockery from establishment Republicans, has extended his streak as the party’s presidential frontrunner for almost five months.

With the Iowa caucuses less than two months away, Republican leaders are growing deeply alarmed by Trump’s resilience. Anxious that his lead may not fade before the voting starts, GOP strategists have begun to brace for a long and painful nomination fight, with Trump’s opponents hoping to grind him down over a period of months…

But even in the face of more evidence of Trump’s endurance — and grudging recognition that a Trump victory is no longer outside the realm of possibility — many establishment Republicans still insist that ultimately, the businessman is unlikely to clinch the nomination. They are starting to anticipate a protracted primary race that extends far beyond the early states and possibly into the summer, in which the party slowly wears Trump down…

“In order to get the nomination, you have to get the majority of the votes at the convention. The presidential election is not going to be won in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina — it has to be won by a composite of all 50 states,” Leavitt, who did not rule out the possibility of a Trump nomination, said in an interview.

***

The most accurate pundits in the history of American presidential politics reside far from the Beltway, on a 403-square mile patch of land along the western border of Indiana. At the intersections of U.S. Highways 40 and 41, and off Interstate 70, you find yourself in Vigo County, with its 108,000 residents and its ho-hum county seat, Terre Haute, situated along the Wabash River. Terre Haute is the land of Clabber Girl Baking Powder—and its citizens call it the “Crossroads of America.” It’s the place where both Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh and labor leader and Social Democratic Party founder Eugene Debs were born, and home to the U.S. penitentiary where the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh died.

And, in nearly every presidential election since 1888, voters here in this blue-collar county have selected the winning candidate, missing only twice: Once, in 1908, when they opted for Williams Jennings Bryan instead of William Howard Taft, and again in 1952, when they chose Adlai Stevenson rather than Dwight D. Eisenhower…

So, when it comes to 2016, you might expect these “between-the 40-yard-lines” voters to be soberly weighing the merits of Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio, with maybe an occasional flirtation with Bernie Sanders or Mike Huckabee. And yet, when I spent two days traveling around its gathering places and watering holes, I discovered that, while the county’s Democrats have, for their part, coalesced around Clinton, its Republicans mostly wanted to talk about just one candidate: Donald Trump.

In America’s most prophetic county seat, Trump enjoys a diverse coalition of support, from the 17-year-old punk high school student on the eve of his first election to the 81-year-old Kennedy voter to the kind of folks who will reshuffle their Thursday night plans to attend a county GOP “Politics and Pies” event. Coastal pundits might lament Trump’s appeal to the “low information voter”—but I can tell you one thing: Terre Haute citizens are anything but poorly informed.

***

The best part of Trump (by which I mean the part that strikes me as especially shrewd and politically dexterous) could be seen when he talked about why he would bring back waterboarding. Enhanced interrogation-and let’s be clear, that’s what waterboarding is; plenty of journalists have volunteered to be waterboarded; torture is something no one would volunteer to experience on a lark-is a topic about which mainstream Republican figures are, for some reason, terrified.

Yet Trump picked up the issue without even being prompted and proceeded to take an unapologetically populist stance: You better believe he’d be open to waterboarding terrorists, he said-I’m paraphrasing-because it works. I beg you to watch the video because it’s a beautiful piece of political theater. Trump brings the audience along, insisting that waterboarding works before turning, at the very end, and impishly proclaiming, that even if it doesn’t work, these scumbags deserve it. The timing, the tone, everything about this moment is political genius.

No matter what you think about waterboarding, or Trump, you should really watch the delivery and contrast the performance with what normal candidates look like on the stump. This is high-octane stuff.

***

In these sorts of intimate settings, a different candidate emerges. Rather than screaming over the roar of a crowd, Trump’s demeanor was softer, his rhetoric was more personable and family friendly. He didn’t curse, and his attacks on rival candidates largely focused on their positions instead of their personalities — so he still went after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for being “very, very weak” on immigration but he didn’t call him a kid or a baby, as he has in the past. And Trump didn’t dwell on his hatred of the media.

Instead, Trump joked about the weather, doled out parenting tips and provided advice for Millennials. He directly engaged with young hecklers, defusing their comments rather than ordering them out of the rally. He acknowledged that many of the outlandish things he says might not be rooted in fact and said his support is so strong that he can get away with things other candidates cannot. Standing before this small crowd, Trump was less of a performer and more of a politician. It was a glimpse into how he might actually operate behind the scenes, away from the crowds that can egg him on…

“My hope would be that if I become president, your life will be much better than it would have been,” Trump said, to gentle applause and a few cheers. “And I’ll go one step further: If somebody else becomes president and they’re not good — they don’t do the job, they don’t do what they have to do — your life will not be as good. It just won’t be as good.”

***

Trump and Carson have been twinned in media coverage for months, and not just because they’ve been leading the field: two outsider candidates, atypical presidential contenders with no debt to the traditional party structure, little interest in old-fashioned political pieties, and no practical experience in either campaigning or policymaking.

But if you had to bet on whether Carson or Trump would do better, Carson would have been a safer wager. He was a man of unassailable character, a highly lauded neurosurgeon and bestselling author. He had an impressive rags-to-riches personal story, and his comments assailing Obamacare at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast had made him an instant conservative folk hero. Trump, meanwhile, was a thrice-married mogul with a history of questionable business practices, a record of inflammatory comments, a grab bag of unorthodox beliefs for a self-proclaimed conservative, and a long history of party-switching and donations to Democrats…

Yet Trump, after an early November slump, has regained his footing, while Carson is sliding toward Jeb Bush territory.

***

Trump may indeed be a little fascistic, but that sinister resemblance is just one part of his reality-television meets WWE-heel-turn campaign style. He isn’t actually building a fascist mass movement (he hasn’t won a primary yet!) or rallying a movement of far-right intellectuals (Ann Coulter notwithstanding). His suggestion that a Black Lives Matter protester at one of his rallies might have deserved to be roughed up was pretty ugly, but still several degrees of ugly away from the actual fascist move, which would require organizing a paramilitary force to take to the streets to brawl with the decadent supporters of our rotten legislative government.

Second, precisely because Trump doesn’t have many of the core commitments that have tended to inoculate conservatives against fascism, it’s still quite likely that the Republican Party is inoculated against him. His lack of any real religious faith, his un-libertarian style and record, his clear disdain for the ideas that motivate many of the most engaged Republicans — these qualities haven’t prevented him from consolidating a quarter of the Republican electorate, but they should make it awfully difficult for him to get to 40 or 50 percent. And a somewhat fascist-looking candidate who tops out where Trump’s poll numbers are currently hovering is not something to panic over — yet.

Finally, freaking out over Trump-the-fascist is a good way for the political class to ignore the legitimate reasons he’s gotten this far — the deep disaffection with the Republican Party’s economic policies among working-class conservatives, the reasonable skepticism about the bipartisan consensus favoring ever more mass low-skilled immigration, the accurate sense that the American elite has misgoverned the country at home and abroad…

The best way to stop a proto-fascist, in the long run, is not to scream “Hitler!” on a crowded debate stage. It’s to make sure that he never has a point.

***

For all his bluster, a President Trump wouldn’t pursue the authoritarian, collectivist agenda that characterized Germany’s Nazi Party and Italy’s Benito Mussolini, at least not according to what he’s said so far about his political views. Calling Trump a fascist risks misleading voters about his agenda, which is not that much different from that of his rivals for the GOP presidential nod…

The candidate’s message lacks the collectivist element that was common to many fascist regimes. Individual ambition is a crucial part of the story he tells voters about himself as a successful, self-interested businessman…

Trump is somewhat more liberal on economic issues than some of his competitors for the GOP nod. He opposes reductions in Social Security, for example. In general, though, Trump boasts about being a wealthy businessman, and his tax proposals are typical of the Republican Party — he’d substantially reduce taxes for the rich…

On other issues, such as abortion, climate change, and monetary policy, Trump’s opinions are also in line with his party. While his presentation may be unusual for a U.S. presidential candidate, his policies are not. Trump is a Republican, not a fascist.

***

There is a distemper in the GOP that bears a strong resemblance to the battles in Europe that pit traditional conservatives against far-right extremist parties such as the National Front, parties that abandon classic conservative values and run campaigns based on race, religion, bigotry, anger and fear…

The GOP bloodbath has begun and will worsen as the nomination battle intensifies and voting becomes imminent and ultimately arrives. Trump will continue to insult and berate his GOP opponents. They will be forced to respond in kind. The venom, vitriol and vindictiveness of Republican against Republican will escalate to a white-hot intensity.

The GOP is now embroiled in a civil war between an anti-establishment, far-right wing led by Trump, Carson and Cruz and a traditional center-right wing divided among multiple weak candidates and supported by fearful GOP leaders and mainstream donors.

Civil wars can be the bloodiest battles. The two competing wings of the GOP hold each other in great contempt that will become increasingly aggressive and ugly. We will soon see a Stop Trump movement that will probably decide the ultimate nominee, leading an angry Trump to run as a third-party candidate, which will create grave danger for a bitterly divided GOP.

***

Simply put: Take all of the ad time Right to Rise has reserved in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and turn the firehose on full blast against Trump. I am talking about a sustained ad campaign whose sole aim is to disqualify Trump — not boost Bush. Sure, Bush and Right to Rise have jabbed at Trump — and a John Kasich super PAC has gone into full attack mode against The Donald — but no one other than the Bush forces have the money to maintain a sustained negative ad campaign against Trump in, at least, the first three voting states.

There’s some precedent for this tactic working in a race like this one. Back in 2004, Democratic forces aligned with John Kerry and Dick Gephardt took a flamethrower to Howard Dean’s candidacy in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina with a flight of ads that painted the former Vermont governor as an inexperienced and unsteady leader in a time of international crisis.

Dean collapsed heading into Iowa, an implosion credited — at least in part — to the ad campaign against him. Kerry, the safe, establishment choice who had looked like a loser just a few months before, rapidly emerged as the nominee. Sound familiar, Jeb?…

With a heavy and sustained ad buy against Trump, there is a not-insignificant chance that there is some real effect on the billionaire’s numbers. A Trump decline would greatly destabilize the current shape of the race. No one needs the current state of the race destabilized more than Jeb Bush. Period.

***

When campaigns enter that final month, voters tend to gravitate toward the person who seems most orderly. As the primary season advances, voters’ tolerance for risk declines. They focus on the potential downsides of each contender and wonder, Could this person make things even worse?

When this mental shift happens, I suspect Trump will slide. All the traits that seem charming will suddenly seem risky. The voters’ hopes for transformation will give way to a fear of chaos. When the polls shift from registered voters to likely voters, cautious party loyalists will make up a greater share of those counted.

The voting booth focuses the mind. The experience is no longer about self-expression and feeling good in the moment. It’s about the finger on the nuclear trigger for the next four years. In an era of high anxiety, I doubt Republican voters will take a flyer on their party’s future — or their country’s future.

***

It is difficult to judge just how badly Trump would fare in a general election, since the conditions under which he would present himself to America as a nominee would look very different. Right now Trump divides the Republican Party and its allied media. He is the subject of withering attacks from many conservative commentators. This, in turn, frees up the mainstream media to assess Trump’s lies in fairly blunt terms. Rigorously down-the-middle reporters can call Trump a liar without fear of jeopardizing their nonpartisan credibility because they are echoing arguments made by many Republicans.

But a world in which Trump had won the nomination would look very different. In that scenario, the Republicans who currently have a strong incentive to tear him down would instead have a strong incentive to rally around their nominee and salvage his standing. A nominated Trump would bring onboard some Establishment advisers currently working for his rivals. Conservatives who insisted during the primary they could never support him would see in their nominee a different, more sober and thoughtful figure than the demagogue they had lambasted months before. And because Republicans would now be rallying around him, Trump would enjoy far more latitude for his wild claims. Fear of partisan bias would then dissuade the media from labeling Trump’s lies as lies.

The different media context facing Trump as a hypothetical nominee would translate into a more positive image. He would remain deeply polarizing, but his profile would more closely approach that of a regular Republican candidate, as opposed to one absorbing the unified disdain not only of liberals but of the mainstream media and half his own party. Trump’s favorable ratings, currently in the mid-30s, would probably rise into the low-to-mid-40s, while his unfavorable ratings, in the mid-50s, would decline a few points…

Not long ago, the prospect of Trump heading the ticket in 2016 was utterly unthinkable. Now it is thinkable, and it is possible to imagine the party absorbing yet another blow to its public standing and simply once again muddling through.

***

***