It's tempting to feel a little sorry for the Republican Party. Here they were, trying to have a perfectly civil and sober primary campaign to determine their candidate for the presidency, when along comes Donald Trump.
I imagine RNC chair Reince Priebus and his aides standing dumbfounded in front of a television set, watching Trump's rambling announcement address on Tuesday, saying to each other, "Jesus, now we have to deal with this buffoon? Didn't we have enough problems already?"
They certainly did, and Trump makes it worse. Priebus has been trying to figure out how to get past this stage of the primary — with as many as 15 declared or soon-to-be-declared candidates — and get down to a few serious candidates who can debate the future of the party and the country before the strongest is chosen to face Hillary Clinton. The party and the TV networks have agreed to limit the upcoming debates to 10 participants, which means those not invited will find their campaigns more difficult to continue as the spotlight of media attention leaves them. And here comes Trump, who will probably be among the top 10 (even if he's never going to stand much chance of winning the nomination). Watching him at those debates should be nothing if not entertaining, as he employs his signature style of barely-coherent bluster, and the other candidates struggle to determine how to deal with him.
Here's the problem, though: Donald Trump is the essence of contemporary Republicanism. It's a distilled essence, boiled down to a viscous and sour consistency. But if you want to know what Republicans believe and who they are, you don't need to look much further. He's a walking caricature, but it's a caricature created from everything Republicans believe.
Start with his wealth. For a long time, but more intensely in the last few years, Republicans have held that wealth is a sign of virtue and the wealthy are deserving of our highest consideration and attention. It is the investors and inheritors and "job creators" to whom we must attend — showering them with favors, relieving their burdens, tiptoeing around their tender feelings — for they are truly the best of us. And nobody talks more about his own wealth than Donald Trump. In fact, for years he has insisted that he's even richer than people think, and his announcement Tuesday included a long disquisition on his finances and how spectacular they are.
Trump's hilarious insistence that everything he touches is the best, the absolute elite, the most high-end and top-shelf and super-classy, is an echo of how Republicans say we must talk about America itself. Not for them the thoughtful consideration that the country has made mistakes, no sir — they believe that urgent proclamations of "American exceptionalism," that we're not just the wealthiest or the strongest country but the very best in all things, just as God intends us to be, are mandatory for all politicians.
The elements of Trump's style — from his jingoism to his willingness to present all kinds of weird ideas as facts to his obsession with right-wing shibboleths (remember how much time he spent trying to convince everyone that President Obama was born in Kenya?) to his relentless oversimplification of complex issues — are all what you get when you take a typical Republican politician and make him a little dumber and more extreme — but just a little. Take, for instance, this passage from his announcement Tuesday, where he elucidates his ideas about foreign policy and national security:
I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall, mark my words. Nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump. I will find within our military, I will find the General Patton, or I will find General MacArthur. I will find the right guy. I will find the guy that's going to take that military and make it really work. Nobody, nobody will be pushing us around. I will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and we won't be using a man like Secretary Kerry that has absolutely no concept of negotiation, who's making a horrible and laughable deal, who's just being tapped along as they make weapons right now, and then goes into a bicycle race at 72 years old and falls and breaks his leg. I won't be doing that.
That is some super-classy, ultimate luxury high-end platinum-quality policy thinking right there, my friends.
Is Trump the most ridiculous candidate in the Republican presidential primary? Of course. But one thing you can't say about him is that he doesn't belong there. He's the personification of the Republican id, saying forthrightly the things most of them want to finesse, embodying their worst impulses, and doing it all with a spectacular if unwarranted confidence.
Other Republicans may recoil from him, but when they look at Donald Trump, they're only looking at a version of themselves.