The assumption that American presidential politics has entered a new and remarkably chaotic stage is being put to the test. The proposition that the old rules no longer apply, and that the Republican primary electorate is in an angry enough mood to defy both historical trends and common sense in order to deliver to a figure like Donald Trump the party’s presidential nomination is supported mostly by polls of a nonexistent national primary electorate. In the early states, a clearer picture of a more predictable race is coming into view. If the prognosticators are right, however, and Trump does fade, his staying power will almost certainly be said to have exposed a vein of intolerant populism within the GOP.
Pundits and Democrats alike will contend that Trump’s campaign is a virtually indelible stain on the Republican Party, and atonement can only be achieved once the demons the celebrity candidate summoned are exorcized through self-criticism. For those tasked with crafting Democratic narratives, this outcome would serve their purposes just as well as would a Trump nomination – as such, you can bet that it’s coming. It would be a tragic mistake if the GOP declined to thoroughly examine the condition that led a substantial minority of conservative voters and influencers to embrace Trump’s brand of nationalism. But if the Trump wave does wane, it will not be entirely fair to suggest that the sentiment he harnessed and rode to the top of the polls over the course of 2015 is particularly new.
First, our own John Podhoretz observed that the Republican primary race began entering a predictable phase in the first week of November with the rise of Dr. Ben Carson. Carson’s surge to the top of both national polls and those of the Hawkeye State was foreseen, and some said that his rise indicated that a familiar dynamic was finally starting to inform the trajectory of the race. Voters were flirting with exciting and unique candidates before settling on more conventional prospects. For the moment, that prediction seems to be coming true. Carson’s standing in surveys is declining rapidly. Nationally, his voters — many of whom were weak Trump supporters — have returned to the real estate mogul’s fold, but that has not been the case in Iowa. There, according to the last three surveys, Ted Cruz has rocketed into a competitive position and even displaced Trump at the top of the latest Monmouth University survey. If that dynamic holds and the establishment vote coalesces around someone like Marco Rubio, the race starts to look a lot more like 2012. If that is the case, Cruz and Rubio will end up trading victories across the country until delegate-heavy, winner-take-all states – most of which hold primaries that are not dominated by voters who describe themselves as “very conservative” – will yield a victory to Rubio (or the establishment-favored candidate).
There are a lot of assumptions in that line of thinking, but none of them are unreasonable if Ted Cruz emerges the victor in Iowa. That seems increasingly likely. If that scenario does end up playing itself out, the narrative of a GOP in chaos will have been misapplied.
Democrats will, however, do their best to make it hard for the Republican Party to forget its base voters’ flirtation with Trump. Virtually every Republican from the presidential nominee on down is likely to be labeled a “Trump Republican” by enterprising Democrats. To wit: “Like Donald Trump, [Senator Mark Kirk is] appealing to base xenophobia, sowing fear of refugees in the midst of one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time,” said a spokesman for Illinois Senate candidate Tammy Duckworth after Kirk released an ad critical of the Democrat on the issue of Syrian refugees. It’s hard to think of a GOP officeholder less deserving of this label, but the fact that it was deployed against him suggests it will be deployed against all. Furthermore, the decision by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to commission a memo examining the prospect of a Trump nomination and advising U.S. Senate candidates to embrace the least offensive elements of the reality television star’s persona will only make Democrats’ jobs easier.
Whether or not the label “Trump Republican” will stick to the party’s nominees is a harder question to answer than whether or not it should. For parties in the midst of a leadership crisis, a brief flirtation with a populist who can claim the mantle “outsider” is a common occurrence. The Democratic Party faced a similar leadership vacuum in 2004, and it was Vermont Governor Howard Dean who filled it. The fiery liberal even won the endorsement of the party’s last presidential nominee, Al Gore. Dean, too, led in the polls before Senator John Kerry surprised political observers by sweeping the early contests. Even though between one-quarter and one-third of the Democratic primary electorate at one point backed Dean (sound familiar?), the party he led somehow avoided being diagnosed with an acute “Howard Dean problem.”
Leadership vacuums do not require the absence of a leader in order to form. Crises of confidence can and often have materialized in presidential races even when the party is set to re-nominate an incumbent. George H. W. Bush faced down a surprisingly potent primary challenge from Patrick Buchanan in 1991-1992. Jimmy Carter overcame a confrontation to his left from Senator Ted Kennedy in 1979-1980. Neither of these populist candidates was representative of the centrist general electorate. Both challengers tapped into their party’s most partisan instincts, and probably contributed mightily to making both presidents one-term occupants of the Oval Office. It would, however, have been gallingly opportunistic to attempt to tar their respective party’s down-ballot candidates only by virtue of their association with a modest segment of their party’s base.
Time will tell as to whether or not the Trump phenomenon subsides, and if it does, whether the effort to label the GOP as the party of Donald Trump sticks. But that there will be an effort to make it stick, there can be no doubt.