This is Senator Joe McCarthy, the infamous red-baiting demagogue, speaking in 1951: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?”
This is Donald Trump, on TV this morning: “Why do we insist on destroying our country?”
This is McCarthy, in 1951: “This must be the product of a great conspiracy … a conspiracy of infamy.”
This is Trump, talking about President Obama: “There is something going on with him that we don’t know about.”
The ’50s Republican party indulged Joe McCarthy, abetting him with its timorous silence, for four long years before it finally roused itself to take him down. Does the current Republican party have the moral wherewithal to renounce Donald Trump before it’s too late to avert a landslide defeat in 2016?
Yeah, we’ll see about that.
For the party that vowed, in the aftermath of its 2012 defeat, to rebrand itself as tolerant, inclusive, and welcoming, the rise of Trumpism has triggered a serious identity crisis. Does this party still stand for traditional values — pluralism, freedom of religion — or has it already decided, by its complicit timidity, to embrace what historian Richard Hofstadter once called “the paranoid style in American politics,” a style characterized, in Hofstadter’s words, by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”?
For many decent Republicans, the latest detestable Trump brainstorm — blanket-banning all Muslims from entering America, banning Muslim-Americans traveling abroad from even returning to America — is arguably the last straw. Because the last thing Republicans (should) want is a nominee who sounds like a fascist. In fact, a lot of people on the right are nailing Trump with the F-word. As conservative commentator Max Boot wrote recently, fascist is “not a term I use loosely. But he’s earned it.”
It would appear — at the moment, anyway — that Trump has finally really truly Gone Too Far. When even Dick Cheney is out there denouncing the idea of a blanket Muslim ban (“It goes against everything we stand for and believe in; I mean, religious freedom has been a very important part of our history”), then you know Trump has Gone Too Far.
Republican leaders in the earliest primary states are assailing Trump for the first time. South Carolina chairman Matt Moore says, “Donald Trump’s bad idea and rhetoric send a shiver down my spine …. American exceptionalism means always defending our inalienable rights, not attacking them when it’s politically convenient.” Iowa chairman Jeff Kaufmann says, “I’m here to reiterate that our founding principles are stronger than political cynicism.” New Hampshire chairwoman Jennifer Horn says that Trump’s Muslim ban “is un-Republican. It is unconstitutional. It is un-American.”
Jeb Bush says that Trump’s Muslim ban is proof that the guy is “unhinged.” A pro-Bush super PAC is readying an ad that will call Trump “impulsive and reckless.” Chris Christie says “this [Muslim ban] is the kind of thing that people say when they don’t know what they’re talking about.” John Kasich says Trump’s latest is “another reason why he is entirely unsuited to lead the United States.” Carly Fiorina says Trump’s “overreaction” is “dangerous.” Lindsey Graham says, “Every candidate for president needs to do the right thing and condemn (Trump for) making these bigoted comments.”
Bill Kristol, the conservative commentator and backroom activist, says that Trump is “soiling the robe of conservatism and dragging it through the dust.” But even though he’s pleased that the GOP candidates are firing at Trump, “will they also say they couldn’t support him if he somehow becomes the nominee?”
That’s the key question.
Republicans have a serious dilemma. Roughly one-third of the GOP primary electorate is mesmerized by Mein Donald. Those folks believe that a blanket ban on Muslims would be awesome; they don’t care that Trump lies all the time, because they think facts are a liberal conspiracy. And every time the Republican regulars attack their guy, they hate the Republican regulars even more.
If the regulars and rival candidates attack Trump too vociferously, perhaps to the point of denying him the nomination, they risk alienating his credulous fans. That would be bad, because they need those people to vote GOP in the ’16 general election. A nightmare scenario: Trump is denied the nomination, he assails the party for mistreating him, he retaliates by self-funding an independent bid — and he splits GOP vote, smoothing Hillary Clinton’s path to victory.
But the other nightmare scenario is that regulars and rivals bite their tongues, and allow Trump to rebrand the party as a font of proto-fascist xenophobic extremism. That’s a prescription for electoral disaster. According to the newest poll, 58 percent of registered voters believe that Trump has damaged the GOP’s image (among Hispanics, the swing cohort in four key states, it’s 65 percent), and this poll (which has the largest national sampling of any recent survey) has Clinton trouncing Trump by double digits. Trump, who loves to cite polls, isn’t talking about this one.
So don’t assume that the Muslim ban flap is some kind of tipping point. Odds are, this too shall pass. Odds are, the GOP will lapse back to inertia, its identity crisis intact. Perhaps it will rouse itself, fully and truly, when Trump starts talking about big, beautiful, terrific mass detention camps. But don’t bet on it.