When Donald Trump initially rocketed to the top of national Republican polls, it was fashionable to compare him to Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich — a flamboyant media personality, briefly capturing the spotlight, but doomed to immolate. But Trump is not running a race like those other candidates, nor is he mimicking their results. Instead, he is following the pattern more like a candidate from an earlier cycle: Pat Buchanan.
Buchanan, a former speechwriter for presidents Nixon and Reagan turned cable-television host, ran for president in 1992 and then in 1996. In his first run, Buchanan — who had held down the right flank of both administrations in which he served — channeled conservative angst with George Bush. It was during his second run that Buchanan fully developed the ideological persona he has maintained since: a populist, paleoconservative. Buchanan was anti-immigration, anti-free trade, isolationist on foreign policy, and a defender of cultural traditionalism. He deemphasized the anti-tax — and, especially, anti-social spending — themes preferred by his party’s elite. Buchanan tapped into a durable constituency within the Republican Party that allowed him to capture more than 20 percent of the primary vote, and more than 30 percent of the caucus vote. The party leadership, remembering his white-hot social conservative address in 1992, denied him a speaking role at the convention, leading to Buchanan holding a bizarre quasi-independent rally for disgruntled rightists just before the convention, at which he gave a halfhearted, anti-climactic endorsement for the nominee, Bob Dole.
Trump appeals to a similar, though not identical, constituency. His natural connection to the evangelical, anti-abortion, and anti-gay-rights wing is much weaker than Buchanan’s. But Trump does have the same mix of cultural and economic nationalism. Like Buchanan, he opposes the hawkish interventionism favored by the Republican elite while still positioning himself as an ardent supporter of the military. (“I’m the most militaristic person there is,” Trump has declared, displaying either a lack of awareness of the meaning of the word militaristic, or a shrewd realization that he can afford to forfeit the support of anybody who does know what the word means.) He has tapped into the very real anxiety and economic pain of the white working class, a strategy on clear display in his recent tour of Flint, Michigan.
Trump, like Buchanan, stands little chance of capturing his party’s nomination. But he is not going to go away, either. He appeals to an identifiable constituency that will stick with him even in the face of defeat or embarrassment. Trump has already endured numerous mortifying gaffes, by ordinary standards, and an apparently unsuccessful effort by Fox News to destroy his standing within the party during a highly visible televised debate. He will not run out of money. He can, and probably will, take his candidacy all the way to the end.
The worst-case scenario for Republicans is if Trump decides to run a third-party campaign. Even managing to get his name on the ballot in a handful of states would bring victory out of reach for the GOP’s eventual nominee. The best-case scenario is that Trump straggles through the race, eventually supporting the nominee. But this scenario is also far from ideal. It means that Trump has shaped the tenor of the race in almost precisely the opposite way the party establishment had hoped.
Immigration did not represent the totality of the party elite’s strategic response to the 2012 election, but it did constitute its main tenet. The Republican brain trust hoped to resolve its image problem with Latino and Asian-American voters by passing immigration reform as quickly as possible. The purest version of this strategy, articulated by Charles Krauthammer, called for Republicans to fold completely on immigration, and change nothing else about their program. The idea was to take the short-term hit as quickly as possible after the midterms, allowing the base to vent its spleen and make up in time for the presidential campaign. Republicans in the Senate were able to make this happen, but the House proved typically impotent in the face of opposition.
In the wake of this failure, Republicans have vaguely hoped to finesse the issue. Trump is making that difficult. His arch-restrictionist plan — involving mass deportations and a gigantic wall on the Mexican border that Trump, through the use of his uniquely Trumpian negotiating power, would make Mexico finance — has set a standard against which others will be judged. Scott Walker is already bellying up to the bar, comparing himself to the polling leader (“I haven’t looked at all the details of his, but the things I’ve heard are very similar to the things I mentioned”). Given that Trump has made himself the symbol of racism against Mexicans, it is difficult to imagine a simple escape from the party’s branding disasters of the Obama era. But that is what they have, and what they may well continue to have, well into 2016.