Some conservatives have grumbled recently about the amount of attention paid to Donald Trump, and attempts to extrapolate what his candidacy means for the GOP. What, after all, does his reality-TV stunt of a campaign really reveal, especially so early in the race?
Sure, he's leading in the polls right now, but that tells us nothing about how the race will eventually turn out. As The Weekly Standard's Jay Cost recently noted on Twitter, no-hope candidates like Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich all led the GOP field for a little while in the last presidential primary race. At this point in the race in 2012 cycle, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachman was in second place. She eventually picked up less than a quarter of one percent of the total vote.
This is both true and worth remembering. Donald Trump is not going to be president of the United States of America. He is not going to be the Republican party's 2016 presidential nominee. He is unlikely to be a serious force in the GOP primary race by the time voting actually starts next year.
Donald Trump, in other words, is not the future face of the Republican party. He's not where the party is going.
But it's also true that at this moment, in July of 2015, several months before the start of the primary and more than a year before the next presidential election, Donald Trump stands at the top of three different national polls, and is running two points behind Jeb Bush in a fourth. There are signs that over the last week, his lead actually increased. Which means that a non-trivial portion of the Republican party base has watched Donald Trump's psuedo-campaign—his series of planned outrages and ugly, stupid, bilious, fact-challenged statements about immigrants and everything else—and decided that they like what they see.
This won't last, and it's not a sign of some major shift in the GOP's tone or general political outlook. But it is the latest—and perhaps most egregious—manifestation of the party's willingness to flirt with and temporarily back no-hope crank candidates whose shtick consists largely or entirely of appealing to the lowest common denominator—what my colleague Nick Gillespie has called the party's "long love affair with schmucks."
Trump's blowhard candidacy is easily the schmuckiest in recent memory, and what it proves is how strong the desire to embrace these sorts of awful candidates remains within parts of the GOP, even after seeing how poorly these sorts of candidates have ultimately fared in the past. If anything, it's even worse given that Trump's awfulness comes not from any real conservative conviction—he's a Democratic donor, and former supporter of national health care, gun restrictions, and wealth taxes who in 2004 told CNN that he "[identifies] more as a Democrat"—but from a simple and barely disguised desire for vainglorious self-promotion. Trump is essentially offering to con the GOP, and, at least for moment, a lot of Republicans seem to be responding with affirmative enthusiasm.
So no, Donald Trump is not where the Republican party's going. But he is where it's at right now. And that is notable, and damning, enough.