How do you solve a problem like The Donald?
That question is currently consuming the minds (and fueling the nightmares) of leading Republican power brokers.
And you gotta have some sympathy for their plight.
Actually, I take that back. It's entirely possible to have nothing but schadenfreude for what the GOP is going through. There is certainly a chickens-coming-home-to-roost character to Donald Trump's meteoric rise in the polls over the past couple of weeks. This is a party, after all, that has spent close to the entirety of the Obama administration stoking right-wing populism, encouraging conspiracy theories about the president and his policies, and deploying wildly irresponsible rhetoric about the dire threats posed to the nation by mainstream members of the Democratic Party. Trump's campaign, which is powered almost entirely by demagogic bluster and insults, is a kind of apotheosis of the party's strategy these past several years.
Still, when I read a thoughtful op-ed by Peter Wehner — former deputy to Karl Rove in the White House of George W. Bush — calling Trump "a pernicious figure" and encouraging fellow Republicans to denounce him as unpresidential, I feel like I'm catching a glimpse of the more sensible, reformed Republican Party the country desperately needs.
And yet Wehner's analysis only goes so far. Yes, the willingness of some of the other presidential candidates to praise Trump is part of the problem, as is the enthusiasm expressed by some of the conservative movement's leading voices. But Wehner is deluding himself if he thinks that persuading a few of his friends in the Republican establishment to turn on Trump will be sufficient to make him (or rather: what he represents) disappear.
The GOP's Trump problem goes all the way down to the roots of the party — the grassroots.
We've seen it all before. And no, I'm not just thinking about 2012, when a succession of unelectable rabble-rousers bounced to the top of the Republican primary field for a week or two. You remember: First there was Michele Bachmann. Then Rick Perry. Then Herman "9-9-9" Cain. Then Newt Gingrich. Then Rick Santorum. Each briefly became the champion and standard-bearer for the same restless, angry faction in the party that's now coalescing around Trump (and Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson — and to a lesser extent Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and, once more, Santorum).
But that faction's roots go back much further than 2012 — all the way back to the origins of the modern conservative movement in the right-wing populism of the postwar John Birch Society and similar groups. They were a ragtag conglomeration of ideological radicals animated by rage against various actors, forces, trends, and policies in mid-20th-century American life: the New Deal, Big Government, communists, negroes, elites, decadent city folk, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, feminists, homosexuals, and secularists. Some feared them all, others focused on one or a few. All of them saw the world through a fog of paranoia and conspiracy.
Until 1964, these Americans had no natural political home in the major parties. But they've been drawn to the Republican Party ever since Barry Goldwater became their champion in his failed bid for the presidency. Some of them paused to support George Wallace in 1968, but their migration to the GOP resumed in the early 1970s, thanks to Spiro Agnew's remarkably successful effort to mobilize them for Richard Nixon. But it was Ronald Reagan who truly brought them en masse into the Republican Party.
At first these voters were just one faction in a party made up of other groups, many of them far more mainstream: the so-called Reagan Democrats (culturally conservative, blue-collar ethnic whites), Cold War liberals put off by the peacenik character of the post-McGovern/pre-Clintonite Democratic Party, businessmen inspired by Milton Friedman's free-market columns in Newsweek, etc.
More than 30 years later, they've grown and spread like a fungus (thanks to the fertilization efforts of Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes). The populists are the now base of the party — its most loyal and devoted members, surpassed only by super-rich donors for influence among the party's leading politicians and strategists. Candidates for president have no choice but to woo this base, to legitimize its obsessions and flatter its prejudices. And the underdog candidates, meanwhile, pin their entire campaigns on these voters, hoping that the flattery will pay off in a surge of support, catapulting them to prominence.
That's how we've ended up with a vulgar blowhard like Donald Trump riding high (almost certainly for a brief time) in the polls. Trump's policy positions (to the extent that he's bothered to articulate them) place him on the far-right flank of American political culture. He delights in deploying racist innuendos. He is temperamentally and experientially unqualified to be president. He's also a mediocre businessman who only managed to turn the tens of million of dollars he inherited from his father into a larger fortune, and avoid squandering it in reckless investments, through the generosity of the country's corporate bankruptcy laws (of which he's taken fulsome advantage on four separate occasions).
And there we have the GOP's conundrum in a nutshell.
Bravo to the party's Peter Wehners: The future lies with you. But that future will be delayed so long as Republican candidates remain beholden to voters who view politics primarily as a megaphone for broadcasting an ignorant, garbled howl of anger, fear, alienation, and resentment.
What the Republican Party needs isn't more courageous candidates and elites. It's a new electorate.