It’s intellectually shallow to pretend Donald Trump is vastly more reactionary than other candidates in the Republican primary. Trump lurks at the right-most edge of the field on the general question of how aggressively we should close American society, but only by an increment. Where most GOP candidates want to prohibit Muslim refugee settlement in the U.S., Trump wants to prohibit Muslim immigration more broadly. Where other candidates want to step up deportation of unauthorized immigrants quite a lot, Trump wants to step it up even more. Where Ted Cruz wants to carpet-bomb Iraq and Syria and “make the sand glow” there, Trump wants to target the families of jihadi fighters with violence. On other issues, like war-making and tax policy, Trump isn’t even the most right-wing candidate in the field.
It’s thus disingenuous for the media, and certain Republican officials—anyone, really—to treat Trump as an anomaly rather than a reflection of the largest segment of the Republican base. But when Democratic candidates do it, it’s also extremely clever. It’s a testament both to the fact that Trump stands a shockingly good chance of winning the GOP nomination, and that Democrats are more clear-eyed about the state of the Republican party than the Republican establishment is.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley set the tone for Saturday’s third Democratic debate in his opening statement, insisting the country “must never surrender our Americans values to racists must never surrender to the fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.”
Nobody called Trump a fascist by name, but his name came up repeatedly. Indeed, Trump was the only Republican candidate any of the Democrats assembled in New Hampshire mentioned by name at all.
Hillary Clinton was the most persistent Trump name-checker. “We need to make sure that the really discriminatory messages that Trump is sending around the world don’t fall on receptive ears,” she said. “He is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”
Stipulating that it’s unclear whether the Islamic State is actually doing this, it’s telling that Clinton chose Trump to illustrate the point, when so many other Republican candidates would’ve sufficed just as well. This is partly due to Trump’s commanding poll lead, but it’s also because she and the other Democrats on stage know that singling out Trump for criticism helps him build support in a Republican primary. Even if he ultimately fails to win the Republican nomination, Trump’s continued dominance, and his power to drag competitors into unsupportable positions, improves the Democratic party’s odds of winning the general election.
The Republican Party establishment is currently engaged in a risky surrogate fight on behalf of Senator Marco Rubio, and against Senator Ted Cruz, whose support has been climbing, both nationally and in early primary states. That isn’t unexpected, insofar as the Republican establishment hates Cruz and generally likes Rubio. But it reflects either a willful blindness to Trump’s popularity, or an unsupportable certainty that Trump will fade before, or shortly after, the Iowa caucuses. Surely anti-immigration Republicans aren’t going to be scared away by the establishment from Cruz’s camp into Rubio’s arms, so long as Trump is still a viable option.
If Democrats were similarly confident of Trump’s inherent weaknesses (as they were when they blew off Ben Carson, who surged in the polls several weeks ago) or assumed Trump would collapse, they might have directed more of their fire at Cruz and other Republicans, too.
But what we witnessed Saturday night, along with a vanishingly small percentage of the potential viewing audience (thanks DNC), is that Democrats aren’t engaged in this kind of wish-fulfillment.
Democrats may not think Trump will be the Republican nominee, but they understand much more clearly than Republicans that he could win. And they recognize that if he happens not to win, his imprint on the political landscape of 2016 will be lasting and that the nomination is, thus, also quite likely to go to someone like Cruz, who has hugged Trump tightly all along.
Inside the Republican Party’s closed information ecosystem, Mitt Romney was famously favored to defeat Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton is supposedly a paper tiger. What we saw tonight, thanks to the contrast the Democratic candidates provided, is that the Republican view of their internal battles is just as distorted.