The GOP's Trump-Carson 1-2 Punch in the Nuts
The 'stupid party' goes nukular
Fox News has a new national poll of registered voters that I intend to bookmark, print out, frame; perhaps even get tattoed in a nether region. With the usual caveat that early national presidential polls have little predictive utility on the nomination, here are your current post-first-GOP-debate faves among likely Republican voters:
25% Donald Trump
12% Ben Carson
10% Ted Cruz
9% Jeb Bush
6% Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker
5% Carly Fiorina
4% John Kasich, Marco Rubio
3% Chris Christie, Rand Paul
1% Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum
There are so many fun ways to rearrange these numbers. For instance, "42 percent of the support from Republican voters went to people who have never held elected office: Trump, Fiorina and Carson." To which I might add: 37 percent of the support from Republican voters went to a leader and runner-up who, respectively, were members of the Democratic Party during the George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan administrations; who have both supported single-payer, government-run health programs in the not-so-distant past, and who both use more Nazi analogies to describe their political opponents than speakers at a 1980s CISPES rally.
So after seven years of bitching about a mediocre president's crippling inexperience, more than two-fifths of Republican voters are going nuts over candidates who make Sarah Palin look like a wisened political veteran. Add Ted "elections for Supreme Court justices" Cruz, and there's now majority GOP backing for a Novices & Populists bloc. Kick in the Huckabee/Santorum religious big-government wing, and we're talking three-fifths.
For those keeping score at home, of those six candidates currently garnering a combined 59 percent polling support you've got two people (Santorum and Fiorina) whose last Senate campaigns ended in double-digit losses to unimpressive Democrats, three whose most recent jobs were as television personalities (Carson was a Fox News contributor until November), and at least five who share as an essential media strategy trying to top one another in crazy. To call this a "clown car" is to disparage the work of pantomime professionals.
These numbers should be an embarrassment to anyone with a brain in his skull or an "R" on his sweater. Instead, a sizeable number of conservatives are, as predicted here, declaring Greater Trumpism to be the vanguard of a righteous new anti-establishment, man. In the succinctly sneering words of The American Spectator's Esther Goldberg, "Many Ruling Class Republicans seem to suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome." That's why such real working-class heroes, like, er, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, are so enthusiastic about the billionaire-led revolt.
But not all anti-establishmentarianisms are built the same. By elevating this particular strain of buffoonery, some Republicans are threatening to jeopardize more than just their chances against the Democrats' relentlessly unlovable grandmother.
In March, as happens rarely enough, I made a political prediction that has managed so far to come true:
The Republican Party in 2015 has a huge and unsated anti-Establishment passion, one that's only stoked by the primacy of elite characters like Jeb Bush (and Mitt Romney before him). Establishment vs. anti-Establishment has been the internal GOP divide since at least spring of 2010 (when Tea Party types began primarying Republican darlings in earnest); led to just a brutal parliamentary smackdown of grassroots activists at the 2012 Republican National Convention, and is as inevitable in the 2016 presidential campaign as water flowing downhill. This fight will be had, no matter how hard RNC Chairman Reince Priebus tries to schedule it out of existence. Candidates who figure out how to channel anti-establishmentarianism will punch above their weight during primary season (something Ben Carson and Ted Cruz in particular seem to understand); candidates who fight against it (Bush most openly) are in for a rude surprise.
Alas, the prescience breaks down from there (for instance, I rated Donald Trump's prospects "long behind" Ben Carson's), but not before sketching out three still-plausible camps of GOP anti-establishmentarians. Which are: The Petulants (political outsiders whose inexperience and outrageous comments are selling points; Carson and Trump were leading examples, with Fiorina and Cruz sharing some aspects), The Insurgents (outsiders inside the political system, like Rand Paul and Scott Walker, and to an extent Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal), and The Crusaders (populist social cons like Huckabee and Santorum). Ted Cruz, notably, has elements of all three categories.
What's remarkable four months latter is the extent to which The Petulants have routed all comers in the early going. Given the choice between a Tea Party-style focus on fiscal conservatism, a SoCon emphasis on capital-V Values, or a generalized HULK-SMASH reflex, Republican voters thus far have picked up the rock. Could the 2008-2009 backlash against big government end not with the righteous dismantling of various federal departments, but rather with a politically doomed plan to spend hundreds of billions of new dollars on deporting Mexicans and erecting a 2,000-mile wall? While I think the answer is no, for reasons I'll tack on below*, there is recent precedent for a limited-government corrective dissolving into barky media populism: the Gingrich Revolution.
Ten years ago this month, I wrote about a grim little Cato Institute book titled The Republican Revolution 10 Years Later: Smaller Government or Business as Usual? Don't let the subtitle's false choice fool you—the revolutionaries by the end of the first Bush administration turned out to be big-government hypocrites, as the contributors to the collection overwhelmingly concluded. That is, with one very notable exception: Newt Gingrich.
"People who dismiss our victory as a fluke do not study our base very often," Gingrich wrote. "We had nine million additional votes in 1994, the largest one-party increase in American history. There is a huge pool of uncommitted voters who have no interest in politics. Thus, when campaigns are able to mobilize such groups, they win in a big way."
As I put it then:
This passage is crucial, and points to arguably the real legacy of Gingrich's Revolution […]. The Republicans located and attracted a new base of voters with bomb-throwing rhetoric that only happened to include some limited-government ideas (hardly surprising, considering the party had been out of government for so long).
The key to maintaining that base, besides the usual vote-buying that every governing party engages in, has been to keep the bombs coming, not to follow up on any of the limited-government promises (with the notable exception of welfare reform).
If you don't believe me, spend a day consuming the most popular cultural artifacts from the Republican-affiliated alt-media—say, the Rush Limbaugh show, FreeRepublic.com, and Fox News—and compare the number of libertarian arguments or ideas you encounter with the number of diatribes against Hollywood, Hillary Clinton, or liberals. If the ratio is even 1:50, I'm buying the drinks.
The good news is that there are far more libertarian arguments now in the conservative mediasphere, and I daresay there still will be even if the Republicans ever regain purchase at 1600 Pennsylvania. The bad news is that the most inaccurate media caricatures of the Tea Party movement come to fruition every time Donald Trump opens his fool mouth, or issues (God help us) a "white paper."
* Big caveat: The 2014 election, which featured near-historic GOP gains in Congress and in statehouses all over the country, had next to nothing to do with Trumpism, or Carsonism, or even a particular focus on illegal immigration. Presidential elections are a lot like the Olympic Games, or World Cups—the one representative contest that many of us consume every four years in an otherwise perfectly busy sport. The likelihood of over-interpreting not just early national polls in primary season, but also the representativeness of early-campaign presidential politics, are near absolute.
All that said, I suspect our grandkids will not believe us when we tell them that for a few fun weeks in 2015, one of the two major parties in the United States featured as front-runners a narcisstic clown-billionaire and a neurosurgeon/motivational speaker whose favorite treasury secretary was "Andrea Mitchell's husband."