Republicans wish they could blame Bill Clinton for the Trump debacle

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(David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)

At the very beginning of the long trek into bombast and absurdity that we call the 2016 presidential campaign, there was an intriguing phone call that set off a flurry of speculation in conservative circles. Reportedly, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump had a chat in May 2015 in which the ex-president may have encouraged the reality TV star in his impending decision to run for the Republican presidential nomination.

What stuck many as odd was that Clinton’s wife, Hillary, had just declared her own candidacy for the White House. Why would Bill be giving a pep talk to a competitor?

In an interview with Stephen Colbert in October, Clinton said he had merely been returning a call from Trump — the two were golfing buddies back then. “I had a very pleasant conversation with him, and it wasn’t about running for office,” he said.


Conspiracy-minded folk could not accept that simple explanation. Instead, the theory developed that Trump and Clinton were in league together to disrupt the GOP primary process. To those who need coherence in their conception of the world, that preposterous scenario has more appeal than ever today, given the disunity and panic that the triumph of Trump has wrought within the Republican Party.

Consider the state of the GOP. Regular Republicans boycotted their own party’s convention even as it became a parade of dark, angry, paranoid talk-radio-style memes that produced a sharp dip in Trump’s favorability rating. Post-convention, Trump spent days squabbling with the Muslim parents of a heroic, martyred American soldier, then stirred up further controversy with repeated claims that President Obama was the true founder of Islamic State. Meanwhile, his campaign guru, Paul Manafort, was busy denying reports that he received $12.7 million in secret cash payments from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.

The number of GOP elected officials and Republican insiders who are rejecting Trump grows daily. There is serious talk among big contributors and party managers about pulling financial support from their erratic presidential candidate and investing the money in congressional campaigns. They fear that Trump’s foundering ship could sink the whole Republican fleet with it. One marker of the GOP’s hopelessness: The New York Times’ running forecast now puts Trump’s chances of beating Hillary Clinton at 12%.

As much fun as it is to think that Bill Clinton and Trump concocted this chaos over the phone, there is no chance it is true. Trump is not the kind of guy who does someone else’s dirty work. Trump, however, is not the sole author of his own disruptive success. He is where he is today because the Republican Party and the conservative media have, for years, fed their constituents a steady diet of angry, “real America” pseudo-patriotism and simplistic antigovernment rhetoric that made them ready, eager consumers for Trump’s brand of bullying and bravado.

Assuming the experts are right — which they have not been very often in this campaign — Trump will lose badly and fade as a political force. But his constituency will still be with us, more angry than ever for being abandoned by the Republican establishment.


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