Dear GOP: Trump isn't "tarnishing the brand" if he is the brand

Over the weekend and again this morning I saw a collection of pundits, media personalities and Republican elected officials who seem to have finally turned the final corner on the five stages of grief. They’ve gone through Denial that Trump would even run, Anger that he proved them wrong and got in the race, Depression when he moved into the top position in the polls and Bargaining that some sort of deal could be struck between the other contenders which would topple him. Now, as Eliana Johnson points out at National Review, we’ve come to the point of Acceptance that there may be nothing for it but to accept that Trump could, in fact, wind up being the nominee.

It began as whispers in hushed corners: Could it ever happen? And now, just three months from the Iowa caucuses, members of the Republican establishment are starting to give voice to an increasingly common belief that Donald Trump, once dismissed as joke, a carnival barker, and a circus freak, might very well win the nomination.

“Trump is a serious player for the nomination at this time,” says Ed Rollins, who served as the national campaign director for Reagan’s 1984 reelection and as campaign chairman for Mike Huckabee in 2008.

Rollins is not alone in his views. “Trump has sustained a lead for longer than there are days left” before voting begins in Iowa, says Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “For a long time,” Schmidt says, “you were talking to people in Washington, and there was a belief that there was an expiration date to this, as if there’s some secret group of people who have the ability to control the process.”

This conversation played out today on Morning Joe, where Scarborough was attempting to point out that the summer fling has now gone on for so long that it’s going to be hard (though not impossible) for America to be talked down from that ledge. Still, one of their guests was in there gamely swinging. While admitting that the odds of Trump being the nominee had gone from “zero to something considerably higher than zero” at this point, history tells us that these things generally don’t play out that way. I was impressed with the response from the panel who seemed to agree that the statement was true, but then went on to note that Trump has taken a lot of things which political history has taught us and turned them on their head.

But Steve Schmidt in particular brings up a good point. I think that there has been a self-reinforcing belief in the halls of GOP power that the folks at the top of the party really could control the process. They would put on a show with any number of candidates to let the peasants feel as if they were involved in the process, but in the end they could keep a thumb on the scale and make sure their guy came out on top.

The arrival of Donald Trump is thus far looking like the first time they ran into somebody with a heavier thumb.

Johnson goes on to quote another old hand from the GOP stable:

In the weeks following his campaign launch, many Republicans fretted not that Trump would win the nomination, but that his incendiary remarks about illegal immigrants would irreparably harm the GOP brand. (The former Bush-administration press secretary Ari Fleischer compared Trump to a roadside accident. “Everybody pulls over to see the mess,” he told Politico in late June. “And the risk for the party is he tarnishes everybody.”) Now, many members of the GOP establishment are concerned less that Trump will hurt the brand than that he’ll become its standard-bearer.

Ari Fleischer is perhaps expressing one of the essential tenets of Washington Republican politics which seems to frustrate so many conservatives. (Particularly if you browse the comments from our readers.) Who is it that actually determines what the GOP “brand” is anyway? Once upon a time I’d have told you that it’s the planks in the platform decided upon at the convention. But that’s really not true, is it? I mean, it worked in practice for a long time and there was good reason for the party elders to believe that they could bend the curve every cycle and determine who would carry the banner. Why wouldn’t they believe it when they’d managed to successfully do it for so long?

But as corny as it sounds, the power still resides with all of those voters out there across the country who register as Republicans, answer the phones when the pollsters call and show up on primary day to vote. All the money in the world won’t stop them and all of the slick campaign advisers across the country can’t override them. If they’ve set their sights on Trump and they don’t change their minds in the next twelve weeks, then Trump is the brand. It’s not set in stone yet, but barring roughly eight candidates falling on their swords and begging all of their followers to sign on with another one, it’s tough to see what stops Trump now.

Perhaps the better question to ask is why everyone was trying to stop Trump in the first place. What you really needed to do was outperform him.

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David Strom 6:01 PM on March 29, 2023