Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday warned that the Republican presidential candidates who are slamming Donald Trump do so at their political peril.
Cruz’s remarks, which came during an interview with POLITICO as he swings through the South on a bus tour, are among the most detailed comments to date regarding his reluctance to criticize the real estate mogul, who is currently leading the polls in the GOP primary.
“I would … note that an awful lot of Republicans, including other Republican candidates, have gone out of their way to smack Donald Trump with a stick. Now I think that’s just foolish,” he said.
Asked why, Cruz paused and then replied, “Donald Trump had a rally in Phoenix, Ariz. [to which] between 10 and 20 thousand people came out. When you attack and vilify the people at that rally as crazies, it does nothing to help Republicans win in 2016. I’d like every single person at that rally to show up and vote in 2016, knock on doors with energy and passion, and turn this country around. If Washington politicians show contempt and condescension to those [voters,] that is a path to losing at the ballot box.”
[T]he Republican electorate is simply in a foul mood, vis-à-vis its leadership. Part of this owes to the fact that these leaders grossly overpromised what they could accomplish, even with Obama as president, in order to win the House and the Senate. Another part of this owes to the fact that when Republicans did hold all three branches of government, they probably moved the domestic policy needle leftward, leaving rank-and-file members to doubt their leaders’ commitments to conservatism. And yet another part of this owes to the fact that “experts” have had a pretty rough run in general since the late 1990s, failing to avert catastrophe after catastrophe while seeing their personal fortunes continue to rise.
Regardless, the constant rejoinder to the suggestion that Republicans will nominate someone extreme has typically been that the party that nominated two Bushes, Bob Dole, McCain and Mitt Romney isn’t likely to do something rash. I think that is, generally speaking, a fair assessment.
At the same time, though, we should realize that sometimes things really do change. Right now, an awfully large segment of the Republican electorate thinks that its leadership is ineffective at best and unconcerned with conservative policymaking at worst, that the country is heading toward a disaster, and that Washington is more concerned with enriching itself than with working for the benefit of the country. This is fertile soil for a candidacy like Trump’s to take off. While I don’t think Trump will be the nominee, neither is it impossible for him to be.
Every time a radio host asks me, usually incredulously, if I could ever in a million years possibly explain how people are signing on to his candidacy, I eagerly respond “yes!” Because I kind of get it. In my less charitable moments, I also want to extend a giant middle finger to the Grand Old Party, which has defecated on its illustrious record from Lincoln to Reagan of rhetorical persuasion, kicking butt and getting stuff done, and become a party of officials who are in absolutely no way responding adequately to the size and scope of problems the country faces. And I also am beyond bored with professional politicians who have spent their lives being careful to avoid saying anything that might offend the media…
One friend explained the Trump phenomenon as a combination of “disgust with the GOP, disorientation — a feeling that there’s no way out of our predicament, ignorance that has overrun the culture, and wishful thinking.”
If at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how clearly voters articulate their views and do the hard work of electing people who claim to represent them, there’s a logic to not backing more of the same.
Another said Trump is a violent protest to the GOP leadership that hasn’t done anything in many years. “He is the ultimate expression that you, Washington, are fired,” she said.
If you can make yourself the center of attention — and no candidate in modern memory has been more skilled at that than Trump — you can potentially turn the polls into a referendum on your candidacy. It’s possible that many GOP voters are thinking about the race in just that way now. First, they ask themselves whether they would vote for Trump; if not, they then choose among the 16 other candidates. The neat thing about this is that you can overwhelmingly lose the majority in the referendum — 75 percent of Republicans are not voting for Trump — and yet still hold the plurality so long as the “no” vote is divided among a sufficient number of alternatives.
Another trade-off comes from entrenching your appeal with a narrow segment of the electorate at the expense of broadening your coalition. I’ve seen a lot written about how Trump’s candidacy heralds a new type of populism. If it does, this type of populism isn’t actually very popular. Trump’s overall favorability ratings are miserable, about 30 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable, and they haven’t improved (whatever gains he’s made among Republicans have been offset by his declines among independents and Democrats). To some extent, the 30 percent may like Trump precisely because they know the 60 percent don’t like him. More power to the 30 percent: I have plenty of my own issues with the political establishment. But running a campaign that caters to (for lack of a better term) contrarians is exactly how you ensure that you’ll never reach a majority.
I realize there is little upside in analyzing Trump’s words. Those who support him are not looking for fancy language, or political correctness, or logical coherence, or human decency — all those establishment poses. They would rather have a candidate who accuses a woman of being hormonal, then repeats the charge that she is a “bimbo,” then tries to cover up the whole mess with a clumsy deception.
In a parliamentary system, Trump might found his own party and win a few seats in the legislature (the Italians, after all, once elected a professionally active porn star to parliament). In the United States, the options are all or nothing. As a third-party candidate, Trump could easily tip a close election to Clinton. How do Republicans persuade him to choose nothing?
The best, maybe only, option is to ensure that his poll numbers deflate quickly, making it obvious that a lavish campaign for the Republican nomination and, later, the difficult task of getting on 50 ballots will end in humiliation. This will require establishment Republicans to stop playing political bank shots off his rise and make clear he has moved beyond the boundaries of serious and civil discourse. And it will require conservative populists to recognize that an alliance with Trump is effectively tying their movement to an anvil (the RedState summit disinvitation is a good start).
I think Trump’s rise has been fueled by three things: the rise of a ghastly celebrity culture, an unfocused but intense anger at President Obama, and the low political literacy of a substantial number of American voters. None of these things are within the control of the Republican Party or any other, and if the GOP tries to “learn the lessons” of the Trump campaign, it will torpedo its chances of producing a competitive candidate in 2016…
My Federalist colleague Neil Dewing captured it even more succinctly in a phrase I’ve been stealing from him for weeks. Trump loyalists, he said, are people “who fetishize their outsider status.” That is, they embrace being the underdog because it gives them a sense of importance and specialness that comes from believing they are in an ongoing struggle with The Man or The System or The Cartel. Thus they love it when The Donald says things like “everybody is stupid,” because that’s how they feel all the time…
To really get the full flavor of this stupidity, you have to ask a Trump supporter what he or she thinks Trump would do differently than any other GOP candidate. That’s when you get some really impressive deep thinking, in non-sequiturs like “he has balls” or “he’d change everything.” Combine this with the false sense of personal connection bred by reality TV, and the effect is lethal. A guy in a New Hampshire focus group last month actually pointed to this babbling, foul-mouthed, billionaire New York real estate and casino baron and said: “He’s just like us.” That’s the kind of dumb that would be prohibited by international agreement if Iran made it in a centrifuge.
That last point illustrates an appalling paradox. Trump’s supporters are resolutely oblivious to the fact that they are cheering on a wealthy landlord who hobnobs with the very elite—like the Clintons—they hate. They’re so mesmerized by Trump’s middle finger that it never occurs them that this is a man who is known for how he openly detests ordinary people just like them. They want to believe he’s on their side, when in fact he wouldn’t deign to set foot in their homes if he were on fire and they had the world’s last bucket of water.
What accounts for the appeal of a Trump figure, I think, is exhaustion with the dispiriting trench warfare of national politics. Both parties spend fortunes on tectonic efforts to gain territory, but little happens. Sometimes there’s a significant victory for one side — Obamacare, for example — but it comes at such a cost, and it is so far from what its backers hoped for, that it doesn’t seem like much of a triumph. So things go back and forth, uninspiringly, and folks get frustrated. This is completely understandable, even moreso when you consider that neither party offers a compelling governing vision, in the sense that Roosevelt and his heirs did for the Left, and Reagan and his heirs did for the Right. We seem to be in a miserable Nixon-Carter period, in which the best we can do is to muddle through.
My barstool theory (one that conveniently mixes two different world wars) is that Donald Trump answers the desire among the frustrated Right for an atomic bomb, a superweapon that can instantly transform the battlefield. No politician who actually wants to govern the United States can afford to carry on like Trump. Trump has never been elected to any office, not even to the sewer board. The skills it takes to run a corporation, and the skills it takes to run one’s mouth, are very different from the skills it takes to succeed in politics, especially in a diverse pluralistic country like ours. People on the Right today get all nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, and forget how despised he was in his time, and his failures.
The result is a disturbing kind of cult of personality. I asked earlier about precedents for unpleasant personalities as the basis of a cult. Well, consider the original editions of the “cult of personality,” the ones built up around Stalin and Mao. Or more recently, the one built around Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. All of these men had a certain blustering charisma, much like The Donald, but they could be even more abrasive, boastful, thoughtless, insulting, and crude. And each benefited from the same paradox: the less he adhered to any standards of responsible behavior the more he thrilled his true believers with what a tough guy he was, with how much he was supposedly a strong leader who would face down the capitalist running dog imperialist fascists and deliver for “the people.”
It seems strange that this kind of banana republic cult of personality would find purchase in a republican system (republican with either a small “r” or a big one), but maybe that’s not such an impenetrable paradox. Stable systems of representative government are notoriously slow and resistant to radical change. You can elect a lot of new people to Congress, as insurgents on the right have done in recent years, but the old party leadership stubbornly clings to their positions, and if the last winner of a presidential election is opposed to your agenda, then congressional leaders can’t get much done even if they try. Changing the political system is patient work that takes decades, and most of it is done, not by electing the “right guy” in a single election, but by promoting the right ideas to your fellow citizens and actually convincing people, which is really annoying work…
There will always be those who lose patience and long for someone to sweep in and knock everything over and be strong enough to bring everyone to heel. That’s a dangerous illusion, though there are some people who want it enough not to care what their strong man really stands for. But I suspect it’s much smaller number than some of the inflated early poll numbers for Trump would imply.
Nietzsche understood himself to be reviving what he called the morality of the strong against the morality of the weak — the outlook that has prevailed in the West ever since Jesus Christ inspired a “slave revolt in morality.” Before then, the strong preyed on the weak at will, and both parties took for granted that this was the natural order of things. But Christ taught a different lesson, one rooted in the resentment of history’s victims: the cruelty of the strong is a sin, God loves the powerless most of all, the winners deserve to lose, and the meek deserve to win. And they will…
From his ranting against the idiocy of the country’s citizens and politicians, to his vicious denunciations of Mexican immigrants (surely the politically weakest people living in our midst), to his chest-thumping proclamations of his own self-evident fabulousness, Trump makes it abundantly clear that he views the world through a thoroughly Nietzschean lens…
The question that remains to be answered is how and why such a profoundly anti-Christian message has come to resonate with millions of Republican voters, including (apparently) many self-described born-again Christians. Do they truly believe the system has been rigged to keep them down and reward undeserving mediocrities in their place?
Political resentment comes in many forms. The resentment that increasingly dominates the Republican Party is the resentment of people who think of themselves as strong but feel screwed by an organized conspiracy of the weak. Donald Trump is their current champion. He may fade, but the sentiments he’s tapped into will not.