Monday, August 24, 2015

Can the GOP Survive Trump?

Molly Ball mulls the question of the campaign so far in The Atlantic.

As Trump evinces surprising staying power atop the Republican field, nervous party members increasingly fret that he is hurting the image of the GOP and damaging its eventual nominee—who most assume will not be Trump. The most obvious problem is Trump’s outspoken opposition to immigration and immigrants, which has offended Hispanics—a fast-growing voter demographic the party can’t afford to lose ground with—and dragged other candidates into a discussion of inflammatory ideas like ending birthright citizenship.

But many Republican strategists, donors, and officeholders fret that the harm goes deeper than a single voting bloc. Trump’s candidacy has blasted open the GOP’s longstanding fault lines at a time when the party hoped for unity. His gleeful, attention-hogging boorishness—and the large crowds that have cheered it—cements a popular image of the party as standing for reactionary anger rather than constructive policies. As Democrats jeer that Trump has merely laid bare the true soul of the GOP, some Republicans wonder, with considerable anguish, whether they’re right. As the conservative writer Ben Domenech asked in an essay in The Federalist last week, “Are Republicans for freedom or white identity politics?”

“There is a faction that would actually rather burn down the entire Republican Party in hopes they can rebuild it in their image,” Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican ad-maker, told me. For his outspoken antagonism to Trump, including an op-ed calling Trump voters “Hillary’s new best friends,” Wilson has received a deluge of bile from Trump’s army of Internet trolls; his family has been threatened and his clients have been harassed. He worries that the party is on the brink of falling apart. “There’s got to be either a reconciliation or a division,” he said. “There’s still a greater fraction of people who are limited-government conservatives than people motivated by the personality cult of Donald Trump.”

The Trump drama, Wilson and others note, comes at a time when the probable Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is struggling with image problems, a protracted scandal, and her own party’s divisions—but the focus on Trump has prevented Republicans from capitalizing on Clinton’s troubles. “He’s framing up a scenario where the election in the fall doesn’t become a referendum on the tenure of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but on the Republican positions advanced by Donald Trump—which are not particularly Republican, and not particularly conservative,” Wilson said.

But the establishment feels embattled—and helpless. A Politico survey of Republican insiders in Iowa and New Hampshire, published Friday, found 70 percent saying Trump’s immigration plan was harmful to the party’s image. “He’s solidly put an anchor around the neck of our party, and we’ll sink because of it,” one Iowa Republican said. The right’s leading writers—George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Barone—have excoriated Trump, to seemingly no avail. Trump doesn’t need them; he has his own cheering section in the likes of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Trump’s rise has highlighted the distance between the Republican establishment that favors cutting Social Security, increasing immigration, and expanding free trade, and the party base that, like Trump, wants the opposite.

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