The political media tends to process each Donald Trump controversy anew, or if not anew then as the latest in a series of contretemps, any one of which would have ended the candidacy of a more traditional politician. Trump began the race as a birther, then slandered Mexican immigrants as rapists, then belittled Senator John McCain for being captured and tortured in Vietnam, then attacked conservative media darling Megyn Kelly, with various smaller dustups sprinkled in between. In each instance, or for the totality of these iconoclasms, we have been told that Donald Trump is defying “political gravity.”
There’s a logic to covering Trump like this, particularly if you operate under the assumption that he won’t be the GOP presidential nominee—that something he says or does or did in the past will eventually cause his poll numbers to collapse. If his demise is baked into the plot, why not grab some popcorn and pass it around till it finally happens?
Of the many drawbacks to this kind of myopic voyeurism, the biggest of all is that it obscures the carnage his candidacy is creating on the right as he mows down its sacred cows. Within the conservative movement, the fight over Trump is being waged mostly by surrogates, but surrogates can’t elevate or ennoble it. Instead it has degenerated into a vulgar farce befitting its main object—Trump himself.
The battle line runs between factions of the conservative movement that care about winning, and ones that specialize in entertainment and charlatanism, with Fox News caught appropriately in the middle.
On one side you have most professional Republican strategists, the Republican National Committee, elite conservative opinion makers, a growing number of Republican presidential candidates, and even coarse and uncompromising activist organs like Red State. On the other are a band of less strategic, but arguably more influential vessels of self-interest like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and the propaganda site Breitbart.
Fox threw in its lot briefly with the former, using the first debate as a staging ground to sandbag Trump at his most vulnerable moment and drag him out of contention. The effort failed. And in the aftermath, perhaps out of a concern for ratings, or a fear that Trump would cite Fox as a justification for a third-party candidacy, the network called a truce.
But others aren’t so easily bowed.
I don't care if @realDonaldTrump wants to perform abortions in White House after this immigration policy paper. http://t.co/l7nq8gN7i5— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) August 16, 2015
Coulter has invited tremendous backlash for this and other pro-Trump volleys, but none so captured the Trumpgeist as this one-sided exchange between Coulter and GOP consultant Rick Wilson, captured in a since deleted tweet.
Wilson’s comment to Coulter stemmed from his Trump-related grievance with Breitbart, whose hilariously obsequious Trump coverage has damaged its credibility with conservatives on the other side of the firing line.
@NolteNC By the way, I knew Andrew Breitbart. Andrew Breitbart was a friend of mine. He would vomit over what you've done to his name.— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) August 17, 2015
Trump’s fanatical immigration reform plan is nominally at the heart of the fight, but only nominally. Coulter et al support the plan, and support Trump in part because of it. But their Republican agonists aren’t necessarily joining the fight because they have softer immigration reform views. They’re incensed because they think Trump is harming the party, and blame these mouthpieces for his persistence. That’s the entire extent to which this is a fight over ideas or values. More thoughtful conservative commentators are treating Trump as a meta phenomenon—an outgrowth of Republican failure, or of a rising global tide of nationalist populism—rather than as one that’s actively thwarting their goal of making the GOP a more substantive party, and must be stopped for that reason.
An ideological contrast is instructive here, because the left is engaged simultaneously in its own heated factional fight—one pitting minority rights activists against Bernie Sanders, his supporters, and, perhaps eventually, other Democratic candidates and liberal interest groups. Wherever you fall on the question of the Black Lives Matter movement’s tactics and goals, or of the way progressives have treated BLM activists, the fact that their disruptions are meant to elevate issues, and that Democrats have responded by accommodating their ideals, is undeniable.
The fight among conservatives, by contrast, is marked almost entirely by nastiness and self-interest. The fact that it's over a character like Donald Trump is fitting. This isn’t the fight the right needs right now. But it's the one it deserves.