How Did This Happen?

Republican presidential candidates, Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidates, Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, Detroit, Michigan, March 3, 2016

The first half of March 2016 may well go down as the turning point in this election and one of the most consequential periods in the history of nomination politics. It could presage the death of the traditional Republican Party and the birth of a third party. For the Democrats, it may show that the party’s split runs deeper than many have recognized. The events of these weeks may also finally establish that Donald Trump—who won three of four states on Tuesday, March 8—is no passing phenomenon, though Republican elders are still plotting to stop him.

Bernie Sanders’s upset of Hillary Clinton in Michigan Tuesday was another in the ever-growing series of unexpected twists in this election year. Contrary to the wisdom that Sanders couldn’t win an industrial state because Clinton had a lock on African Americans, Clinton won less than two-thirds of Michigan’s black vote—a major difference from her performance in southern states. (On Tuesday, she roundly defeated Sanders in Mississippi.) It turned out that the trade issue had particular salience in Michigan. Throughout his campaign, Sanders had been charging that deals such as NAFTA, negotiated by Bill Clinton’s administration, and the TPP, which Hillary Clinton had been slow to oppose, cost too many workers their jobs. But he gave it new emphasis in Michigan.

For now the focus must be on what could be the death spiral of the traditional Republican Party. Many Republican politicians and strategists think that the party is in serious trouble if Trump becomes its nominee, but it could also be in serious trouble if he doesn’t. His decisive victories in Michigan, Mississippi, and Hawaii on Tuesday reversed the view that he was perhaps stalling, having lost two out of four states on Saturday, March 5. Ted Cruz, who took Idaho, was the only other candidate to win on Tuesday; Marco Rubio flamed out, coming in fourth in two states and third in two; John Kasich who had said that winning in Michigan and then in Ohio next week would create a way for him to be the convention’s choice, came in third in Michigan, behind Cruz by a small margin. Now Trump is seen as well on his way to making it virtually impossible for any other candidate to catch up to him before the convention.  Next Tuesday’s contest could tell us whether the combined forces of those horrified by that idea can block him.

One by one, his opponents have fallen—sometimes unaware that they’ve done so—taking the number of Republican contenders from seventeen to four. Even if Trump’s remaining rivals can pick up enough delegates to keep him from amassing the 1,237 he needs for the nomination, it would be just the beginning of a very big problem for the Republican Party. Would the Trump delegates—the largest bloc—sit still while the nomination goes to someone else? Would they vote for a candidate the party elders think preferable to their choice? Trump’s request at a recent rally that people raise their arms in a pledge to remain loyal to him, which produced an unnerving picture, was just one sign that he doesn’t plan to give up easily. If he’s rejected, where does his following—a very large and disparate number of disillusioned and angry people—go?

The regular Republicans’ desire to block Trump is partly a matter of sheer pragmatism: they assume that Trump will lose the general election—and they don’t want to go down with him. The Republicans are in danger of losing control of the Senate this fall, and if the election is a bloodbath they could conceivably suffer substantial losses in the House, though by far most Republican seats are protected by gerrymandering. The leaders prefer to couch their concerns in terms of principle: what tore it for them—or what they used as an excuse to at last separate themselves from Trump—was Trump’s obvious attempt on a Sunday talk show to evade disavowing David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. This all came about because, in late February, former KKK grand wizard David Duke said on his radio program—yes, David Duke has a radio program—that his listeners should vote and volunteer to work for Trump. He said, “I haven’t formally endorsed him. But I do support his candidacy, and I support voting for him as a strategic action. I hope he does everything we hope he will do.” Whatever that is. White supremacist groups have also tweeted approving comments about Trump, some of which Trump retweeted. After Trump’s embarrassing talk show performance, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, without mentioning Trump’s name, denounced any candidate’s failure to denounce racism and bigotry and specifically the KKK.

The reality is that the Republican Party has stoked and relied on racial prejudice for a long time and now it’s stuck with its racist history. It’s inarguable that the Republicans treated the nation’s first black president as they would not have a white man. How was it conceivable that a Republican congressman shouted, “You lie!” at President Obama as he delivered his first State of the Union address, in 2009? Though there was a sign of the Republicans’ flirting with racism when Barry Goldwater ran in 1964—he voted against the pending civil rights bill—it was Richard Nixon in 1968 who enshrined it in a doctrine, the “Southern Strategy,” which he aimed at blue-collar workers as well as Southern whites. Nixon dubbed these people “the silent majority,” including in particular people who weren’t demonstrating against the Vietnam War. But the term came to stand for a more amorphous collection of people described as “going about their own business” and not demanding government handouts—unlike the you-know-who’s.

The silent majority wasn’t just anti-black, it was one side in a class war against people of more privilege, mainly kids of college age and their weakling, leftist professors—as Nixon saw it. (As it happens, wages were stagnating then, as they are now.)  This came to a head in 1970, during a hard-fought midterm election in which, like now, control of the Senate was at stake. In May, construction workers were encouraged by the Nixon White House to beat up anti-war demonstrators in lower Manhattan. Afterward, Nixon was presented with a hard hat, symbol of the construction workers, by the union president, Peter Brennan, whom he later made secretary of labor. Early this year, Donald Trump frequently referred to his followers as the “silent majority.” He’s recently constrained himself from his previous egging on of those who were pushing and otherwise beating up demonstrators at his rallies, but the pushing and scuffling continues. In fact, it’s become a regular feature of a Trump rally.

When Mitt Romney, in his March 3 speech at the University of Utah, excoriated Trump for “the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics,” political observers immediately began speculating over his angle. Did he still covet the nomination? Romney went at Trump’s most vulnerable spot by charging that he wasn’t the dazzling success at business of his own legend. The legend has been critical to Trump’s basic promise in his campaign that he would take America to new heights of economic strength, and if it turned out that he wasn’t the wildly successful businessman he portrays himself to be, this rationale would crumble. Romney recited a long list of alleged flops ranging from Trump University (now the subject of lawsuits charging fraud) and Trump Airlines to Trump Magazine, Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, and Trump Mortgage. Trump’s genius was supposedly that he had turned himself into a brand. Romney warned that Trump has proposed “reckless” foreign policy ideas, such as having ISIS take out Assad, and tossed aside some of his own dignity by calling Trump “a fake,” “a con man,” and “a phony.” 

To Trump’s followers, Romney’s speech was an attack on their hero by another fabulously wealthy man with an elevator for the cars in his garage, and the embodiment of the establishment who, in 2012, demonstrated a cluelessness about discontented workers and the unemployed. The conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham said in a Twitter message after Romney’s speech, “The guy [who] wrote off 47 percent of the country is now attacking the guy who is broadening the reach of the party.” With utter predictability Trump trotted out once more his criticism of Romney as a “loser” in 2012. Like other members of “the establishment,” including Republican leaders in Congress, Romney didn’t understand the people he was talking to—that it is precisely the party leadership and their ways that are being rejected. This was the main problem with his 2012 presidential campaign. He didn’t get that it wasn’t on to criticize the cookies some middle-class people in Pennsylvania served him at a picnic table.

In any case, Romney was the wrong man to deliver the anti-Trump message. Polls taken on Tuesday found that as a result of the speech, 31 percent of registered Republican voters are more likely to vote for Trump, and 20 percent are less likely. It also found that just 5 percent of Trump’s supporters told pollsters that they were now less likely to vote for Trump. No sooner had Romney finished his speech than the news media showed tape of him being effusively grateful for Trump’s endorsement in 2012. That endorsement came, as Romney had sought, shortly before the Nevada caucuses and it took place in Las Vegas. At that point, Trump was a very wealthy casino owner and reality TV star and a fading member of the “birther” movement that had been intent on proving that Obama wasn’t born in the United States.

In his Utah speech, in an effort to stop Trump, Romney urged backers of Rubio, Cruz, or John Kasich, the other remaining Republican candidates, to be sure to vote for them—so that their combined votes would block Trump—and later, Romney recorded a telephone message for Rubio’s get-out-the-vote drive in the four Republican contests on Tuesday. The Romney campaign took care to say that this didn’t constitute an endorsement. He wanted Rubio to win Florida and keep it away from Trump. For what it’s worth—and it may be worth a lot—Romney hasn’t ruled out running as a third-party candidate. Stuart Stevens, a well-connected Republican operative and a major figure in the Romney campaign in 2012 who is still in touch with him, told me this week, if Trump is nominated “I think 100 percent there will be a third party.” (He declined to comment about whether Romney might lead it.)

The important point is that a third-party candidate can throw a spanner in the works. George Wallace and Ralph Nader, for two, probably affected the outcome of the races they entered. On Monday, after months of extensive exploration, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said he’d decided not to run as an independent. He’d floated the idea earlier in the campaign, when Hillary Clinton was looking weak as a candidate, and it was premised on Bernie Sanders running against Trump in the general election. But now, barring some earth-shaking development, Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. (Though Bernie Sanders, who showed unexpected strength in Michigan this week, won’t let her indulge in just having to think about how to beat Trump, whom she’s begun to rebut by implication.) Polling by Bloomberg’s scouts showed that if he ran he’d do more damage to Clinton than to Trump and might well help elect him. This, said Bloomberg aides, was antithetical to him and so Bloomberg pulled the plug on perhaps the last of his several close looks at running for president as a third-party candidate. A Bloomberg third party would presumably come from the center and, unsurprisingly, Bloomberg’s scouts found that there’s little center remaining.

Trump wine and Trump steaks at Donald Trump's press conference, Trump National Golf Club, Jupiter, Florida, March 8, 2016
Mychal Watts/WireImage/Getty Images
Trump wine and Trump steaks at Donald Trump’s press conference, Trump National Golf Club, Jupiter, Florida, March 8, 2016

The runner up to Trump in delegates at this point is Ted Cruz, who is almost as unacceptable to the Republican leadership as is Trump. Lindsey Graham—who though he did poorly as a candidate this year is often quoted because of his gift for expressing wisdom in a South Carolina idiom—said in late January that deciding between Trump and Cruz was like choosing whether to be shot or poisoned. One of Cruz’s Senate colleagues, a Democrat, but one who reflects widespread thinking, described the Texas senator’s style as “reptilian.” But while Cruz is despised by the establishment—it was he who forced the disastrous government shut down in 2013—some are beginning to reconcile themselves with the idea of him as preferable to Trump. He is a genuine conservative, they rationalize, and they at least know what he will do. But that might be another delusion. Cruz has been a solo operator who pulls stunts that upset his supposed allies.

Graham, who recently said he was ready to go with Cruz despite his earlier serious misgivings, recalled that Trump and Cruz had had a truce not to attack each other as a matter of mutual self-protection, which had lasted until late February, when Cruz decided he needed to bring Trump down in order to seize the nomination. On Monday, Graham reflected on CNN about the fact that there once were seventeen candidates for the Republican nomination and all of the rest, including himself, had refrained from taking Trump on. “They didn’t want to, you know, poke the guy. They didn’t want to get people mad. Ted Cruz was running as his best friend.” And then Graham summed up the effect of the strategy: “Any time you leave a bad idea or a dangerous idea alone,” he said, “any time you ignore what could become an evil force, you wind up regretting it.”

Marco Rubio, once the vessel for the great hopes of a number of Republicans and feared by numerous Clinton supporters, has turned out to be the synthetic candidate. Some observers sensed early on that the vessel was empty, but Rubio’s youth and Hispanic background were supposed to make him the most dazzling of the Republican hopefuls and a real threat to Clinton. He is but the latest example of that puzzling “intuition” that overcomes people supposedly in the know—members of the press, political operatives, donors—that so-and-so is the hot candidate. In the past two years, this mantle has been passed from Rand Paul (three-time Time cover story subject: “The Most Interesting Man in American Politics”; “The 100 Most Influential People in The World”; “Special Election Preview”) to Scott Walker (two-term red governor of a blue state; the natural for the nomination, said The New York Times; to Jeb Bush (he need but enter the race); and finally, to Rubio. In mid-February Rubio had his own week on Time’s cover as “The Republican Savior.” (In 2012, the hot candidate was supposed to be Rick Perry.) The attrition rate of these sure-thing candidates is startling, yet every four years we have a new one.

The pending question within the Rubio campaign—which, after twenty-five contests, has won only Minnesota and Puerto Rico and has come in third or fourth in almost all the rest of them—is whether he should get out of the race if it appears that he will lose his home state of Florida next Tuesday. In his attacks on Trump at the debates, he came off as an immature brat, beaming as he talked over Trump, making wisecracks. The two candidates might have been taken as putting on a dirty vaudeville act had we not known that theirs was a desperate clash of ambitions on the part of not fully matured men. Thus Rubio’s persistence in suggesting that Trump has small hands, which means that his you-know-what is small (grin) met Trump’s bottom-dwelling retort in the CNN debate in Michigan on March 3: “And he referred to my hands—‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee it.” What kind of person talks that way—in front of a nationwide audience or not? I can think of politicians current and past who would have cut Trump dead with intelligent, clever, well-timed lines.

Yet the assumption by the Republican Party elders and many political observers that Trump would go down badly to defeat in the general election is by no means beyond dispute. Trump’s press conference in Florida, after his March 8 victories, offered new insights into the man. He only seems to be free associating; he knows what points he wants to make and they have a clear purpose. In an effort to calm the Republican Party establishment, he said, “I think it’s very important, as a Republican, that our senators, and our congressmen, get re-elected,” and later described himself as a “common-sense conservative.” He made a point of saying he had “great respect” for Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House, whom he’d unsubtly threatened at his previous primary-night press conference. He also praised the Republicans who’d attacked him: Graham had been “very nasty” but was “probably a very nice guy”; Romney was someone “I could probably get along with.” Trump’s experienced enough to know not to make permanent enemies, if he can help it, and he was building a bulwark, or so he hoped, against an onslaught against him at the convention.

But what set apart this press conference from perhaps any ever given was his arranging for the presence of props to support his defense of his business, which first Rubio and then Romney had begun to assail. Trump doesn’t leave an attack unanswered, which some Republican operatives think may be his downfall in the general election. And so like a TV hawker he held up a copy of Trump Magazine and gestured to bottles of Trump wine and Trump water and a pile of Trump branded raw steaks, while brushing off the lawsuits against Trump University. (He said it would reopen once he’d won the cases charging fraud.) Trump knew, of course, that the reporters wouldn’t have time to check these late-night claims, though not long after this Lawrence O’Donnell said that the steak business had lasted two months in 2007. Trump apparently thinks that if he just keeps talking the world won’t catch up with him. 

Interestingly, Trump made the point that he has a lot of properties all over the country and he believes he does well in the states where they are because he employs a lot of people. (“When you have property in a state, it means you love the state.”) Foreseeing a one-on-one fight with Cruz, he also threw in some nods to Evangelicals: “They’re chipping away at Christianity. Now, we’re not going to let that happen anymore, folks. We’re going to start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”  The Evangelicals, he added, “get me, they understand me. I’m going to be the best thing that ever happen to them”—and they don’t like it that Cruz “really does lie.”  

If Trump is nominated, he can be expected at least to give Clinton—the probable Democratic candidate—a tough and unsettling fight. One never quite knows what’s next with him; he bounces around the political arena like a big untethered talking balloon. Trump has made it clear that he considers no holds barred and that he will drag Bill and Hillary Clinton through the mud. We can’t know how the country would react to that, or, in fact, how the Clintons would.

Whether or not Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination or the White House, people are going to look back on this time and ask, How did this happen? How did a minimally informed, nativist, protectionist, vulgarian bully and ruffian come so close to winning the American presidency? And no matter what the polls say now, it cannot be ruled out that he will win it. Trump’s dominance of the Republican presidential campaign thus far isn’t as shocking as many people think. Now that it’s happened I think it’s clear that we’ve been ripe for such a candidate for a long time. The way was prepared years ago and was enhanced by recent economic and racial developments that stirred tensions and anger. It remained only for a celebrity and opportunistic star of reality television—the lodestone of our current culture—to put himself forward.