Whatever else is to be said about Trump, he is a master salesman. And in the GOP presidential marketplace, he has a near-monopoly on the product he is selling now: hard-line, unapologetic, xenophobic opposition to both immigration reform and Mexican immigrants. Immigration is the fault line of the GOP. The party’s establishment — from its corporate backers to The Wall Street Journal editorial page to Jeb Bush (when he’s not hedging) — want immigration reform. They know that no national Republican ticket can win without Hispanic voters.
But the base that dominates the primary electorate loathes immigration reform — so much so that even Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, had to retreat from his original embrace of it to be a viable presidential contender. Hence, the question you ask is classic Catch-22: If the ultimate Republican presidential candidate does appropriate some part of Trump’s message to win the nomination, he will be as doomed as Mitt Romney was after he embraced “self-deportation” for undocumented immigrants in 2012. Or more doomed, given the trajectory of the Hispanic population explosion in America.
For all the other much-discussed factors contributing to the Trump boom — the power of celebrity, his “anti-politician” vibe, his freak-show outrageousness, his Don Rickles–style putdowns — it is the substantive issue of immigration that remains the core of his appeal to his fans. That’s why Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are defending him; it’s why Bill Kristol did until last weekend. And those Republicans who are now demanding that he desist are mostly hypocrites. John McCain himself, after all, enabled and legitimized those Trump partisans he now dismisses as “crazies” by putting Sarah Palin on the ticket in 2008. Other GOP leaders waited too long to disown the conspiracy theories about the president’s birth certificate that Trump would eventually exploit to reboot his political aspirations. Romney ostentatiously courted and received Trump’s endorsement in 2012. Many of the Republican politicians now condemning Trump for attacking McCain’s heroism in Vietnam were silent (or worse) when John Kerry’s Vietnam heroism was Swift Boated in 2004.
The GOP can blame the media all it wants, but the party has no one to blame but itself for weaponizing Trump. It subsidized and encouraged the market for what Trump is now selling. Now the Republicans’ only really hope is that Trump will blow himself up, Herman Cain style. Maybe he will, and he certainly has no chance of getting the nomination no matter what he does. But in the meantime he can keep wreaking havoc. Nine other GOP candidates were onstage at the Ames, Iowa, forum last weekend where he trashed McCain, and no one remembers anything anyone else there said unless it was in response to Trump. The same may well happen at the first national debate on Fox News on August 6, which is likely (because of Trump, and much to his delight) to be the highest rated primary debate in history.
Even over the short term, the Republicans are clueless about how to deal with him; they keep playing into his hands. A classic example was yesterday, when John Kasich, regarded by some Republicans I know as perhaps the most substantive and qualified prospect the party has, announced his presidential candidacy. His announcement was drowned out not just by Trump, with his stunt of revealing Lindsey Graham’s private cell-phone number at a campaign event, but by Graham himself, who took the bait by taking to Twitter and television to joke about it — thereby making certain even a minor Trump stunt would keep depriving the rest of the GOP field of oxygen.