The last Republican nominating contest was dominated by a succession of increasingly pathetic protest candidates — Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum — serving as placeholders with whom conservative activists could register their amorphous rage. The experience has instilled justifiable caution among reporters, some of whom (myself included) overstated the depth of support for the spoilers. We have all been predisposed to treat Donald Trump as a sideshow, and he certainly has done nothing to make himself a plausible candidate to win the Republican nomination. But Trump has made himself an important factor. His effect on the race to date has been larger — and, from the Republican standpoint, more damaging — than anybody expected.
The GOP’s most important strategic imperative was to structure its nominating contest so as to narrow the gap between its core voting base and the immigrant communities, especially Latino ones, it needs to regain national parity. The first and most important element of that plan was to pass comprehensive immigration reform, taking the issue off the table. That plan collapsed in 2014. The second element of the plan involved imposing some structure and control over their presidential debates, to avoid the 2012 debacle in which candidates competed with each other for the most draconian stance on immigration. No more electrified fences or self-deportation.
To see just how badly Trump has screwed up the intentions of the party elders, consider the results of a new Washington Post poll. Since his inflammatory comments describing immigrants as criminals, Trump’s favorable rating among Republicans has surged:
Meanwhile, his unfavorable rating among Latinos has also surged:
Indeed, Trump has become probably the most visceral symbol of bigotry in the Latino community. “Even Latinos who haven’t paid much attention to politics are tuning in — Trump’s remarks are featured prominently on Spanish-language television, Facebook and Twitter, and anti-Trump chants have become wildly popular at televised soccer matches,” reports Mary Jordan. The Trump phenomenon is not even confined to the United States — Mexicans are pummeling Trump piñatas. He has made himself into an authentic cultural touchstone with visceral power. Rather than drawing nearer, the Republican base and the Latino vote have never stood farther apart.
Two years ago, Republican strategists imagined an election landscape in which their party had put immigration behind it and would woo Latinos with appealing faces like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush. The reality of a comic-book villain Latino-basher dominating their party’s communications is a nightmare they never contemplated.
Fox News is probably trying to freeze Trump out of its debates by requiring that all candidates file paperwork. Many people believe Trump has exaggerated his net worth and won’t be willing to expose his empty boasts by disclosing his actual net worth. But many of us also believed Trump would never declare a campaign. He has already proven his willingness to act irrationally. Trump has blown up a lucrative commercial brand as a loudmouth pitchman and embodiment of vulgar wealth (a hardy American trope) and traded it for Pat Buchanan’s brand — which is also a hardy American trope, but with far more limited opportunity for commercial exploitation.
All of Trump’s wild, unpredictable behavior is backstopped by a not-very-subtle threat. He could at any moment declare an independent candidacy, which would reduce the Republican Party’s prospects of defeating Hillary Clinton to zero. Trump has flaunted this weapon with the subtlety with which he flaunts everything else:
I’ve had many, many people ask me about running as an independent,” Trump told me in a telephone conversation. “My sole focus is to run as a Republican. …
I asked if he would definitively rule out a third-party run. “It’s something I’m not thinking about right now,” Trump said, “because I’m doing well within the Republican ranks, and that gives us the best chance of defeating Hillary Clinton.”
And so, as the GOP sets out to contain the Trump fallout, it must contend with an activist base that, at least superficially, sympathizes with him, and a reality in which Trump can threaten them with retribution far more damaging than anything they can threaten in return.