At this point, I worry we’re going to start finding members of the Republican establishment curled up in their beds, eyes clenched shut and ears covered with trembling hands, moaning “make it stop, make it stop, make it stop.”
Pity their suffering, but remember that they brought it on themselves.
The insurrection that propelled billionaire Donald Trump into the lead for the GOP nomination and ultimately made House Speaker John Boehner surrender his gavel in frustration rages on unabated. This was no mere summer skirmish. If anything, the rebellion is gaining strength.
It is dawning on the party grandees that their most recent predictions of Trump’s demise, like earlier ones, were wrong. He lost some ground after a lackluster performance in the second debate, to be sure. But he still has a healthy lead, with his slide halted or even reversed, and continues to enjoy – astonishingly – more than double the support of any Republican candidate who has held elective office.
More incredible is that in second and third place are retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, both of whom share Trump’s distinction of never having been elected even dogcatcher. According to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, Trump is at 23 percent, Carson at 17 percent and Fiorina at 10 percent. That adds up to fully half of GOP voters defiantly thumbing their noses at all the senators, governors and former-somebodies who are languishing down there in single-digit limbo. Jeb Bush, for all his money and pedigree, is at 8 percent.
Imagine what assumptions the political cognoscenti would be making if it were Bush, not Trump, who had maintained such an impressive lead since July, both nationally and in the early primary states. The smart money – which seems pretty dumb this year – would surely anoint him the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. Yet it is taken as an article of faith by Republican wise men and women that Trump will surely lose. Somehow.
He might, of course. Running for president is hard, and Trump has already made some rookie mistakes. But after getting where he is on bluster, charisma and personal energy, he is now putting together an organization capable of performing the nuts and bolts work of a viable campaign. He even shows new self-awareness, acknowledging to interviewers that the last debate may not have been his best performance.
And there is a reason for Trump’s success that goes beyond his skill at burnishing his personal brand: He is saying what much of the GOP base wants to hear.
The party establishment has only itself to blame. From the moment President Obama took office, Republicans in Congress have been selling the base a bill of goods. They demonized Obamacare and cynically swore to repeal it, knowing they could not. They balked at sensible immigration reform, deciding instead to do nothing. They engaged in Pyrrhic brinkmanship over the budget and the debt ceiling, fully aware that in the end they would have to back down.
Promising to do the impossible was an effective short-term strategy for raising money and winning midterm elections. But if you keep firing up your supporters and letting them down, they become disillusioned. They begin to think the problem might not be Obama and the Democrats. It might be you.
That same dynamic is happening in the House, where Boehner’s decision to walk away seems to have emboldened, not chastened, the ultraconservative revolutionaries in the GOP caucus. If he chooses, Boehner can use his remaining weeks in office to keep his party from further injuring itself by shutting down the government or playing chicken with the debt ceiling. But it will only be a matter of time before the next speaker has to quell some far-right tantrum.
In the Democratic Party, the conflict is ideological – left vs. center-left. In the GOP, the struggle looks existential.
Put another way, it’s not hard to imagine a party in which there’s room for both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and you can easily imagine one supporting the other as standard-bearer. But a tent that can hold, say, both Trump’s view on undocumented immigrants – hunt them down and kick them out – and Bush’s support for compassionate reform? That’s not a political party, it’s a food fight.
The Republican establishment may ultimately find some way to drag one of its presidential candidates through the primaries. But chaos, Trump has shown, is the GOP’s new normal.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.