Donald Trump has once again traumatized the political world with his announcement that he would not permit any Muslims to enter the country. But Trump is not the entire problem. Save some blame for a paralyzed Republican Party.
Yes, there are various denunciations of his latest statement. But let’s consider a New York Times story from December 2, Wary of Donald Trump, G.O.P. Leaders Caught in a Standoff. Republican leaders have two basic reasons for fearing Trump. First, party pros understand that if Trump is the nominee he is going to get pasted by Hillary Clinton and drag down Republicans like Senators Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte. Second, the big money contributors who would fund a Trump take down hyperventilate that Trump would be mean to them and call them names.
That may seem unduly belittling of billionaire masters-of-the-universe, but consider this from the Times story:
Two of the most potent financial networks in Republican politics, that of the hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer and another led by the industrialists Charles G. and David H. Koch, have each had preliminary conversations about beginning an anti-Trump campaign, according to strategists involved. But Mr. Trump has already mocked Mr. Singer and the Kochs, and officials linked to them said they were reluctant to incur more ferocious counterattacks.
Until yesterday’s remarks about banning Muslims, very few political professionals were keen to take on Trump either. One person who was willing to speak truth to bombast is presidential candidate Senator Lindsey Graham, who described a Trump nomination this way: “It would be an utter, complete and total disaster. If you’re a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot, you’re going to have a hard time being president of the United States, and you’re going to do irreparable damage to the party.”
Senator Graham is a serious and thoughtful, and extremely conservative, South Carolina Republican with a particular background in national security. I have heard former Massachusetts Senator Mo Cowan recognize Graham’s stature on several occasions. Few students of the presidency or serious observers of American politics would disagree with Senator Graham’s assessment of Trump’s potential as a president.
So which of these candidates is presented to the public as a potential president in televised debates, and which is relegated to the kids’ table? Trump’s sole “qualification” for the office is his lead in polls, a function of his celebrity. When the Republican National Committee delegated debate participation decisions to the networks (gee, who’d help ratings?) which then sub-contracted the decision to polls, (gee, who could guess that a reality show celebrity could poll so highly?), this is what you get. Kim Kardashian in 2020!
To be fair to the GOP, it was in a box that the Democratic Party could not escape in similar circumstances. By limiting its candidate pool to serious people who could actually handle the job of president, the GOP would have enraged its dissident wing. It could scarcely refuse its polling leader a central place at party debates. Polls are of marginal use in predicting the actual nominee, but they are roiling the process.
The most influential theory in political science about the presidential nomination process is that The Party Decides during the invisible primary – the period before Iowa and New Hampshire. TPD theorizes the party as not only elected and organizational officials but “intense policy demanders.” The voters ratify their choice. So far that isn’t playing out. Trump has no endorsements from governors or members of Congress, but those folks haven’t coalesced behind anyone else either.
Right now the GOP is in a lot of trouble because of its own unwillingness to stand up for itself against a popular but idiotic and damaging reality television celebrity.