As soon as Donald Trump swaggered into the race for president, he sucked all the oxygen out of the Republican tent and left the other candidates gasping for air time. The only way his rivals have been able to get their faces on TV has been by either attacking or defending Trump’s wild characterization of illegal immigrants as rapists and criminals.
Jeb Bush finally said he was tired of talking about Trump, but not before asserting that The Donald does not represent the true Republican Party.
The party establishment thinks that Trump is a big problem and that the sooner he implodes, the better it will be for them. But when and if that happens, they will still be stuck with the millions of voters in the Republican base who may not want Trump to be the party’s nominee but who subscribe to his outlandish ideas.
Republican officials are appalled that Trump has provoked outrage among Latinos, just when they were trying to soft-pedal the immigration issue and find ways to reach out to Latino voters. They know they will never elect another president if they fail to make inroads into that rising sector of the electorate, but, now that Trump has jumped to the top of a couple of polls in primary states, Latinos will conclude that a big reason he moved to the head of the pack of candidates is that a lot of Republicans agree with the harsh things he is saying about immigrants.
In addition to immigration hard-liners, there are several other Republican constituencies that find things to like about this year’s version of Trump. (In past years, Trump was calling himself pro-choice and spoke positively about a national healthcare system, two stances he now rejects.) Birthers, of course, love him because, during the 2012 election, he joined their paranoid tribe by expressing serious doubts about President Obama’s true birthplace. Many tea-party partisans admire Trump, not only because they are in harmony with him on many issues, but because his angry, “the-country-is-going-to-hell” diatribes match their own ill temper. And then there are all those Republican millionaires and billionaires who may like Trump simply because he is one of them and is not embarrassed to brag about it.
Bush is wrong to say Trump does not fit with the Republican brand. This is not the GOP of Jeb’s father and grandfather; the sober, business-oriented Northeast and Midwestern Republicanism of the mid-20th century. This is a party filled with resentful white Southerners and leave-me-alone Western libertarians. It is a party energized by ranting partisans on talk radio and Fox News. Bush knows this as well as anyone and surely is aware that his muted personal style and his somewhat nuanced conservatism are seen as suspect among these sharply ideological elements of the party. His biggest challenge is to prove himself to the militant base without pulling a Mitt Romney and permanently damaging his appeal to moderate voters in the general election.
The Trumpathon will pass. The only question will be whether Trump gets bored of running for president before the public gets bored with him. After he exits, though, Republicans will still be left with an identity crisis. They want to appeal to Latinos, but they are the party of immigrant bashers. They want to appeal to black voters, but they are the chosen party of those who cling to the Confederate flag. They want to appeal to working Americans, but they are the party that protects billionaires at every opportunity. They want to show they can govern, but they are a party filled with politicians who hate government.
The Republican Party’s biggest Trump problem is that he embodies the spirit of the party all too well.