How Republican mandarins will try to civilize Trump the barbarian
It's finally semi-official. With his last two opponents, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, out of the race, Donald Trump is now the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for president. As Kublai Khan conquered the ancient Song Empire of China to become its first barbarian emperor, Trump swooped down and conquered the once-mighty party of Lincoln. Now that party has to figure out how to respond.
For the people who make their living crafting policy papers and political strategy, Trump's ascendancy presents both an opportunity and a threat. On the one hand, because he comes into the position of nominee with a much thinner infrastructure than is typical, Trump has a huge number of slots to fill — including at the highest level. Plus, Trump has shown a distinct preference, both in his brief political career, in his business career, and even in his personal life, for people with non-traditional qualifications (or few qualifications at all), and a willingness to promote quickly to very senior positions.
The opportunity is there, in other words, for bold and aggressive staffers to leapfrog over more typical choices for a host of quite senior positions. Notwithstanding the risk that, if Trump loses badly, eagerness to have welcomed our new insect overlords proves a permanent career liability, we're probably about to see a version of "Political Apprentice" play out on a massive scale.
For the conservative movement, meanwhile, Trump poses a bleak choice. They can attempt to negotiate from a position of weakness — demanding a vice president who they consider politically reliable, for example — and risk finding themselves humiliated as Trump ignores them and does whatever he wants. They can protest by mounting a third party challenge, give Clinton an electoral landslide, and render themselves permanently radioactive in the eyes of both Trump's own loyalists and the bulk of the party political leadership. Or they can focus their attention elsewhere — on Congress, for example — and live with the dread that, if Trump wins without any help from them, they will have neutered themselves permanently in the eyes of the party as a whole.
But what neither of these groups is likely to do is consider: Why did this happen? And what does it tell us about what we should be doing differently?
Why am I so sure of this? Three reasons.
First of all, the past few electoral cycles provide ample evidence that the national GOP and the conservative movement are alike institutionally incapable of responding to external stimuli. After the manifest discontent of the 2012 primary season, followed by the Romney loss (which much of the GOP establishment was genuinely shocked by), one would have expected the GOP brain trust to wonder: How do we keep our people down on the farm and see Paree? What set of policies and postures would both win the trust of our core voters and have potential appeal in a general election?
But the brain trust did no such thing. Instead, it immediately doubled down on precisely the conventional wisdom on the right prior to the 2012 election: Downplay divisive social issues, appeal more to ethnic and racial minorities with immigration reform and school choice, and otherwise stick with tax cuts, regulatory relief, and a bellicose foreign policy. That's a policy mix that was guaranteed to further irritate their own base — but also one with no demonstrated appeal to the general electorate. But that was the Kool-Aid they had, so they went searching for a new bottle to pour it into.
And then, throughout the 2016 campaign, most of the GOP candidates for president attacked Trump primarily for not drinking the same Kool-Aid as the rest of them. It never seemed to occur to anyone that, if Trump was winning while saying that the Iraq War was a disaster, that maybe the GOP base didn't share elite GOP opinion about the worthiness of that adventure. With that kind of record, why should anyone assume that they would even notice that the barbarians have sacked the capitol?
Second, they can tell themselves that if Trump loses, he'll have done their work for them. Trump, after all, won by opposing precisely their recommendations — by alienating racial and ethnic minorities with his talk of Mexican rapists and banning Muslims from American soil. And he also traduced conservative shibboleths across the board, praising eminent domain and professing little concern about who uses which bathroom.
So if Trump loses, establishmentarians can say that his nativism was to blame, and true-blue movement types can say that he lost because alienated conservatives stayed home. Neither camp has any incentive to wonder how they could have lost this time, because if Trump loses they can convince themselves that their old formulas will surely win next time.
Finally, if Trump somehow wins the general election (and that isn't at all impossible, though the odds are surely against it), then that will have done their work for them. After all, Trump isn't taking the nomination at the head of an institutional insurgency, as Reagan did and as Cruz intended to. He's a celebrity candidate with virtually no infrastructure around him. And he's running as a Republican. If he wins, Republicans win. So from an employment perspective, what's not to like about a winner, whoever he happens to be?
Moreover, the GOP can still try to convince itself — with some evidence — that Trump will prove exceedingly malleable policy-wise. After all, he doesn't think about policy much, and surely believes that his voters aren't primarily motivated by issues but by his own personal awesomeness. And on many issues Trump is far less-heterodox than his rhetoric suggests. Consider Trump's tax plan, or his health care plan. Trump's efforts look like more amateurish and exaggerated versions of precisely the sorts of "plans" that GOP candidates have been proposing for the past several cycles. They involve enormous tax cuts for the top income brackets and corporations, and ripping up ObamaCare to replace it with nothing.
Trump has been emphatic enough about physically building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico that it would be difficult for him not to break ground somewhere, but apart from that particular promise it isn't hard to see how he could be induced to jettison most of his heterodoxy during the transition, if not during the campaign. And to the extent that he doesn't, well, most policy is made by staffers anyway. Staffers who are going to mostly be the sorts of people who are in Reince Priebus' contacts rather than in Trump’s.
Once he was emperor, Kublai Khan famously decreed the building of a stately pleasure dome at Xanadu — just the sort of thing one can imagine Donald Trump doing. But to govern China, he relied on Han Chinese advisors, and ran his empire according to traditional Chinese models. Trump the barbarian may wind up being "civilized" by his conquest in much the same manner.