There’s a fun moment, back in the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where Bill Clinton is doing his job as his party’s Explainer-in-Chief. He’s talking about the Romney/Ryan attacks on Obama for “robbing Medicare.” He explains how Obamacare does not, in fact, rob the program, but that the legendary Ryan budget does punch a hole in Medicare. A suppressed-laughter tone creeps into his Bubba voice, and he says, “It takes some brass to attack a guy for doin’ what you did.”
As is often the case with Bill, he underlines a fundamental problem with the Republican Party: It takes some brass to attack a guy for doin’ what you did. Especially when that guy is Donald Trump, and what he’s doing is running the same party playbook you have for the last few decades — just louder, and dumber, and with fewer limits than a trust-fund kid in a fully insured rental car. Attacking Trump on the merits, as fellow Republicans are doing, takes massive, King Kong levels of brass — not just because Trump will keep raising the stakes in response, but because that kind of attack would be the biggest “WHY ARE YOU HITTING YOURSELF???” moment in GOP history.
Sure, Lindsey Graham and Rick Perry have some brass, but that’s just a symptom of a worse condition. Graham called Trump a jackass because he has a case of the vapors. First, Trump smeared John McCain, Graham’s heterosexual life partner in Mideast carpet bombing. Second, in some polls, Graham is registering at 0.0 percent. Factoring in the margin of error, it’s theoretically possible that Graham’s appeal is so low that some people might choose to die instead of voting for him. At this point, the best he can do is lay down suppressing fire for the future nominee and hope that, when they break through to the presidency, they make him Secretary of Forever War.
As for Perry, well, he’s also in danger of not polling well enough to join the grownups at the first GOP debate. Fox has decided that only those in the top-ten of poll results will take the main stage; everyone else has to sit at the kid’s table, and he’s in danger of being sandwiched there between Graham and Carly Fiorina, listening to George Pataki explaining that he’s pro-choice. Talk about the winner’s circle! Beyond that, all anyone knows about the guy is that he was on drugs during the 2012 primary, he wanted to eliminate three departments of the federal government so badly that he could only remember the names of two of them, and he got booed for saying it would be heartless not to offer in-state college tuition rates for children of undocumented immigrants in Texas. So attacking Trump with statements Perry clearly didn’t write himself only garners favorable writeups in blogs and maybe some screen time on Fox to bump those numbers. Besides, Trump attacked him for being soft on the border, then copped a lot of Perry’s old rhetoric about it. Again, attacking a guy for doin’ what you did.
Meanwhile, every other candidate is taking the safest shots at Trump possible, for multiple reasons. The first and most obvious is that, if or when Trump flames out, they want to be able to snatch up his supporters. There’s no reason to alienate them now if you believe you can get away with minor harrumphing about Trump while waiting for him to fizzle.
But the less obvious and more fundamental problem can be seen in the candidates’ responses to Trump’s accusations that Latin American immigrants are dumb, poor and/or rapists. As I explained elsewhere in more detail, essentially all of them have made variations on hysterical, nativist cracks about immigrants. This is an attitude so bone deep in the Republican Party that it is now nearly indivisible from it.
It’s a mistake to think that Trump represents a horrifying new departure in tone. Just a few years ago, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer claimed that “illegals” were leaving severed heads in the desert. “America’s Sheriff” Joe Arpaio (who joined Trump in birther conspiracy) has made a career of humiliating immigrants and leveraging his extreme tactics into national stardom. You probably can’t spit in a Southwestern legislature without hitting a Republican who’s had a picture taken with Joe. Likewise, it probably wouldn’t take many loogies in the same houses of governance to find a Republican who’s praised the “Minutemen” — white nativist yahoos who “patrol” the border with machine guns and trucks and less military discipline than the technicals they probably aren’t smart enough to realize they look like (but less expensive and effective). And if you want to talk eliminationism, Steve Scalise, the third highest ranking member of the House GOP leadership went to a convention organized by neo-Nazi and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. When the Republican leadership found out, they did nothing.
Remember when Ebola was maybe coming from Mexico and Obama didn’t care? And then ISIS was coming from Mexico, and Obama also didn’t care, but then it turned out the “Muslim prayer rug” found at the border was an Adidas shirt? Trump isn’t going off-script; he’s just playing Mad Libs with the script.
If not immigration, what can the other candidates condemn Donald Trump for? Fiscal indiscipline via the multiple bankruptcies his enterprises have suffered? That’ll be rich coming from the folks who kept mum from 2001 to 2009. Bobby Jindal cratered his state. Scott Walker can only balance budgets by breaking promises and using fuzzy accounting, defunding the state university system by $250 million, then handing $250 million to the Milwaukee Bucks, one of whose co-owners now works for him. I could go on, but the point is that these people plan to get revenues in order by ramping up defense spending and pairing that with tax cuts.
Speaking of which, they could accuse Trump of being a foreign policy lightweight. Though, again, Scott Walker. Or they could point to the fact that Walker, Cruz, Rubio and Bush’s rhetoric about China, Russia, Iran and Islam in general would pit the United States on a war footing with about two billion people on day one.
And speaking of day one: Walker and Rubio want to rescind the current Iran deal, with the idea that they can then re-impose sanctions on Iran to bring it to its knees. This ignores that the sanctions will only work if the rest of the UN Security Council and the EU go along with it; but they just agreed to lift them, so no. If nonexistent sanctions don’t work to get Iran back to a bargaining table that we just set on fire after years of evidently meaningless negotiation, it’s bombs away! It’s impossible to turn around and assert that Trump’s belief that The Art of the Deal will help him understand Vladimir Putin sounds dumber than this.
Where else can they even hit Trump? They could attack him for insisting that old people have health care and some kind of safety net, but he’s only making explicit the terms of the stage farce the rest of the candidates enact when they scream, “WE MUST OVERHAUL SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE,” before whispering down at the footlights, “for everyone but the current generation of retirees and soon-to-be retirees.” They’re still talking to the same old people.
There’s also his endless self-promotion; for instance, they could hit him for making tacky ads hocking steaks. But have you looked at any campaign website’s merchandise page? Try Rand Paul’s: There are Rand Paul beer koozies and steins, a “Don’t drone me, bro!” shirt, sandals, wineglasses, something called “Hillary’s Hard Drive” (which sells for $95), “freedom socks” and a $1,000 autographed copy of the Constitution. And there is zero dignity in campaign ads. Here’s Rand Paul chainsawing the tax code like some asshole version of the video for Frank Black’s “Headache.” Hell, a huge part of movement conservatism is basically a direct-mail scam designed to get people’s money for “victory at the polls” and “influence in Washington” and “gold that can get them through the apocalypse.”
But what really blows the GOP 2016 primary apart is something called Worthington’s Law, which states that “more money = better than.” The Republican Party has spent so many decades asserting the inerrant truth of financial social darwinism that Donald Trump is immediately the most important, smartest, wisest and best man for America out of all of them. If he weren’t, how did he make all that money? My god, just think of all the jobs he’s created via golf courses, casinos, exclusive USDA Prime Angus steakcraft, mattress sales, TV production and hotels. And what can they claim? Scott Walker’s basically a career government sponge. Marco Rubio’s cup of coffee in the private sector was a political favor, before he became a government sponge aided by a conservative sugar daddy. Ted Cruz was a lawyer and a government sponge. Jeb Bush? Ahahahaha, you didn’t build that.
Even the other candidates’ appeals to taste and professionalism fall flat. You can’t argue Donald Trump shouldn’t be making policy just because he’s rich when you’ve pushed for and won the complete gutting of the campaign finance system so rich people can write “FOR ZERO DERIVATIVES REGULATION” in the memo of a massive check. This is the system working. How is Trump any less qualified to determine policy than Sheldon Adelson, who may have mob ties in China, who likes to quash marijuana referenda to keep people away from vices that aren’t gambling, and who dictates our position on Israel? How is Trump less qualified to talk about abortion than ten-gallon shithead Foster Friess? Why is his money dirtier than the Kochs, whose exploding pipelines kill people? Hell, if anything, his candidacy cuts out the middleman. My god, think of the savings.
At best, his opponents can claim that his outrageousness is a liability in the longterm, but their rabid purity testing of candidates has made it go gangbusters this primary season. The greatest execration from right-wing media and the grassroots is RINO (Republican in name only), which — beyond tax loathing, Reagan pandering and uterine hostility — often amounts to little more than a test of how much a candidate is willing to sound like an asshole, and, dear lord, the man is transcendent in this regard. This guy is trolling on at least two other levels simultaneously, and we will never stop watching. Trump could start handing out money to hecklers only to fire them in front of crowds. He might actually buy a local business at a campaign stop just because he’s bored. And while we’re at it, picture this, somewhere in the middle of Iowa:
This is what I’m saying: I’m always saying to people, “No one appreciates the farmers.” And you’re great! No, really, you’re great! I love you. I always said, if I couldn’t make it in big business, and I have, I’m very successful, I’m very very rich — but if I couldn’t, I would have loved to be a farmer. That’s probably why I build the Trump National Doral and the magnificent Trump International Turnberry, which I own, which are both extremely beautiful and exclusive courses. But it’s the farmer thing, you know. It’s the farmer thing! Because I wanted to grow something very very beautiful and world class. But here’s the thing, [pointing to tractor] we have to do something about these mowers, because these are not in good shape. But don’t worry, I have a mower guy. He’s very very good, he handles all my mowers. We’re going to get you some mowers, and I know everyone will love them.
We have to enjoy that kind of lunacy, because the underlying revelation is just too depressing — that all his antics and bloviation aside, Trump is the dark heart of the Republican Party in Carrara marble and brass. There’s a begged question involved in discussing whether Trump’s presence at the top of the GOP field and the first debate is an assault on the dignity of the GOP primary process; it’s the presumption that there is something left unprofaned. But nothing about Trump is new. His brutish, demonizing nativism merely echoes the last decade’s virulence and traces its roots to the “othering” aspects of the Southern Strategy. His twinned aggression and ignorance of foreign policy joins a proud tradition that started sometime around the moment the first conservative hijacked the Dolchstoßlegende to show how “liberals” lost us Vietnam after they lost us Cuba, China, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and — fuck it, why not? — Iran. Donald Trump is going to make us great and strong again without it costing a thing, just like the Eighties and the 2000s. His crass merchandizing and hucksterism falls right in with movement conservatism’s direct-mail history, and his claims to innate wisdom superiority as a wealthy dealmaker can be traced from the Gilded Age right up to Citizens United. And the convenient thing about sounding the same is that both Trump and the other GOP candidates can issue a nearly identical press release screaming about the bigoted “liberal media cabal’s” wildly distorted likening of the two by swapping the order of the proper nouns.
Donald Trump isn’t movement conservatism malfunctioning. He’s what happens after five decades of it working. It’s gonna take a lot of brass for GOP candidates to attack the thing they made.