Donald Trump is streaming toward the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, scattering the campaign wreckage of the GOP establishment’s once-celebrated paladins, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio – and perhaps the GOP itself – in his wake.
And, while he’s at it, he’s vilely trashing the “old-fashioned” conventions of decency of language that once especially characterized contests for the presidency. Now, allegiance to that tradition exists only in the hard-fought Democratic contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Trump, on the other hand, has led Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz into ugly verbal brawls better suited for red-light district street corners.
Yet, even the scathing condemnation of his candidacy by the party’s last two presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, will almost certainly not stop Trump from marching into this summer’s Republican Party convention in an extremely favorable position. That’s because the fundamental force behind Trump’s takeover of the GOP isn’t Trump but the voters supporting him.
Would it be appropriate at this point to dust off that old metaphor “barbarians at the gate?”
Not really. “Barbarians” have actually been in charge of the GOP for decades. In fact, it’s their trashing of numerous traditions of American politics, along with several conservative-engineered Supreme Court decisions, that have enabled Trump and his mob, with their far cruder manners, to now be hollering for the old barbarians’ heads.
What the latter didn’t realize these past eight years was that in spending so much energy building an indiscriminate united front against President Obama, they let into their very small “Big Tent” several different forces that began to steadily shred that tent’s canvas walls.
That history was starkly illustrated by four distinct but related events leading up to and including the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries.
Chris Christie’s stunning endorsement of Trump, coming just weeks after Christie was lambasting the “entertainer” on the campaign trail, seemed to bespeak not only his own excruciating humiliation but the party’s weakness, too.
Trump showed just how much things have changed on primary night. Along with the smiles and light-hearted bantering with the media he displayed at a news conference at his palatial Florida estate came unmistakable signs that his meanness and dictator-like impulses are becoming more and more pronounced.
Then, the target was one of the GOP’s own titular leaders, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, and a man who clearly plans a future run for the White House.
Earlier that day Ryan had criticized Trump’s despicable evasion during a Sunday television talk show interview of forthrightly condemning the Ku Klux Klan. The ludicrous episode had garnered substantial media attention and driven at least one Republican senator and representative to announce they wouldn’t vote for Trump if he wins the nomination. Ryan weighed in on their side, saying anyone who “wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party … must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry.”
That night, Trump, asked by a reporter for a response, was belligerent. “Paul Ryan,” he declared, “I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price. OK?”
Trump didn’t explain why he took offense at Ryan’s stating a would-be presidential candidate shouldn’t be accepting endorsements from racists. Nor exactly what the “big price” Ryan would be paying if he ever dared cross “President Trump.”
But it’s likely that, first, Trump was declaring that his election victories meant that now he, not Ryan nor Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, is the true head of the party. Secondly, Trump wanted to squelch any further focus on his relationship to overt White supremacists because he knows that bigotry is the fundamental basis of his appeal – just as it’s been for the GOP as a whole since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run. The “old” Republican racism was couched in euphemistic expression. Trump’s campaign, however, from its beginning has been awash in overt expressions of racism and, increasingly, a menacing sense of barely-contained violence.
It’s true America’s never had a major-party candidate like this, not even George C. Wallace, the notoriously racist governor of Alabama during the 1960s. But for all of Trump’s posing as a “populist,” he has the same attitude toward his supporters as the segregationist Democrats of the Jim Crow era did toward their constituencies.
That is that the only group he holds in more contempt than Black Americans, Mexicans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, veterans who fought in Southeast Asia and in the Gulf War, First Nations peoples, Chris Christie, Democrats, and the Republican Party itself, is them.