During the 2008 election cycle, Mitt Romney was often accused of treating politics more like a consumer-focused business than an exercise in leadership. “My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo,” he said, radiating the sense that if primary voters wanted something, anything, he’d be willing to sell it. His strategists obsessed about creating and selling “Brand Romney.” To many, these efforts made him look like a crass twit, a market researcher’s caricature of the perfect Republican candidate, even as he came in second-place for the GOP nomination. This election, however, Romney may have to compete with Donald Trump.
Trump, the real estate mogul and reality TV star, has been putting out the types of feelers that usually signal a real candidacy rather than a publicity stunt. He is riding high in the polls on essentially the same customer-service-style political strategy that fellow entrepreneur Mitt Romney pursued, but a la Trump, stronger, bigger, crasser—and in a far more radical political environment, where the demand for an ultra-hard line on terrorism has been eclipsed by the niche demand for Birtherism, along with extreme policy positions that voters weren’t even obsessing about yet like virulent anti-Chinese protectionism and a policy to openly steal the Arab world’s oil. The Republican establishment has perceived this as a threat—believing that Trump will drag the entire Republican field into a world where they cannot be taken seriously by general election voters—and launched an all-out effort to tar him. But the truth is that their effort may be a lost cause, for reasons that are intrinsic to the success of Trump’s consumer-focused approach: This year, GOP voters’ hunger for radicalism is so great that it can be filled by essentially anybody. Kill off Trump’s candidacy and the demand will remain, leaving an opening for yet another demagogic charlatan to take his place.
Trump first raised eyebrows in the Republican establishment by taking steps that a serious candidate would take before running for president—planning trips to Iowa, chatting up potential staff, sitting down for an interview with Christian Right journalist David Brody. Then, last Friday, Public Policy Polling released a survey that showed Trump not only running ahead of the entire 2012 field, but registering numbers higher than such prior leaders as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. That caused the Republican Powers That Be to stop dismissing him and launch the kind of sustained attack that is said to have succeeded in fatally damaging Sarah Palin’s credibility as a potential presidential candidate. During the last few days Karl Rove, George Will, and the Club for Growth have all trashed Trump very aggressively.
But a closer look at the PPP findings should reveal the weakness of this elite strategy. What they show is not a desire to support the faux tycoon per se, but a raging right-wing, anti-establishment fever that has only gotten stronger in recent months. Ending or mortally wounding a Trump candidacy would only address its symptoms, rather than curing a condition in which voters will follow whichever candidate is willing to outdo his or her opponents at wingnuttery. According to PPP, fully 23 percent of self-identified Republicans say they could not vote for any candidates “who firmly stated they believed Barack Obama was born in the United States.” Another 39 percent weren’t sure they could vote for such Birther-defying candidates. The pollster didn’t test some of the other provocative positions associated with Trump, such as his stance on China or desire to despoil the Arab world of its oil, but I have a strong feeling those sentiments would perform pretty well, too. There may be no coherent body of views you could call “Trumpism,” but even without Trump, there would be a hunger for spicier red meat than is being offered by the current crop of Republican candidates.
This screw-the-establishment sentiment must be understood in the context of what looks to be growing dissatisfaction with compromises made by Republicans in the Tea Party Congress and statehouses. The House Republican leadership has been congratulating itself for “winning” the recent appropriations fight without shutting down the government, and without triggering an outright revolt among the House freshmen. But that’s not going over well in activist land. This previous Tax Day weekend saw a slew of protests against the latest establishment sell-out: In a nice act of revenge against her Beltway detractors, Sarah Palin regaled a Wisconsin audience with a fiery attack on Congressional Republican gutlessness, taunting them that they need to learn to “fight like a girl.” And conservative pressure to go to the mats over a debt limit increase is rising rapidly each day, particularly if the alternative is some sort of budget deal with Democrats that leaves tax increases on the table while removing the kind of radical attack on domestic spending advanced by Paul Ryan’s budget.
This dynamic creates an enormous temptation for non-congressional Republicans to join the revolt, as evidenced by the rapid devolution of Tim Pawlenty into an extremist on budget issues and a favorite at Tea Party rallies. (He’s now opposed to raising the debt ceiling, even though that would damage the U.S. economy on a scale similar to a nuclear attack.) And if there is something that GOP voters want which Pawlenty is unwilling to give them because he decides it’s too crazy, then there will always be Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann, who are receiving rapturous receptions on the campaign trail, to flay him for his equivocation.
If Trump is pushed out of the limelight or off the campaign trail by the conservative establishment, or by his own erratic record on a host of issues, the atavistic longings of the rank-and-file conservative base will simply affix themselves elsewhere as other candidates try to tap the rich vein of anger he’s helped galvanize. And if he survives the pounding he’s about to get from respectable opinion, then George Will is right: He will make a “shambles” of every Republican presidential debate. But that’s not only because he’s an eccentric demagogue who is willing to say just about anything for attention. It’s also because he’s exactly what conservative voters crave.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.