People who call themselves leaders of the Republican Party—politicians, donors, strategists, elders—are panicking over an impending disaster. Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz are about to roll through the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, crushing the “establishment” Republican presidential candidates. Trump and Cruz are also running first and second, respectively, in South Carolina. They even lead in Florida, the home state of Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush. It’s hard to see where Trump or Cruz could be stopped—and how either of them, if nominated, would win a general election.
The party’s putative leaders, desperate for a third option, are begging the establishment candidates—Rubio, Bush, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio—to consolidate their support or at least to stop attacking one another. Many Republican insiders, resigned to a Trump or Cruz nomination, are blaming anyone but themselves: mainstream candidates who failed to connect with voters, super PACs that didn’t take Trump seriously, donors who wouldn’t pony up to stop him.
The disaster, the blame game, and the establishment’s surprise at what’s happening are related. Since President Obama’s election, the GOP has abandoned its role as a national governing party. It has seized Congress not by pursuing an alternative agenda but by campaigning and staging votes against anything Obama says or does. The party’s so-called leaders have become followers, chasing the pet issues of right-wing radio audiences. Now the mob to whom these elders have surrendered—angry white voters who are determined to “take back their country” from immigrants and liberals—is ready to install its own presidential nominee. The Trump-Cruz takeover is the culmination of the Grand Old Party’s moral collapse.
In foreign policy, there’s a term for governments that don’t govern. We call them failed states. A state can fail for many reasons, but weak or clueless leadership is usually a factor. In a failed state, insurgencies grow, warlords arise, and chaos reigns. That’s what the GOP has become.
When did the collapse begin? Maybe it was in late 2008 and early 2009, when congressional Republicans decided to block anything Obama proposed. Maybe it was in 2010, when they refused to compromise on health insurance reform or to agree on a plausible alternative. Maybe it was later, when they staged dozens of pointless votes to repeal the new law in its entirety, treating health care as a campaign issue rather than a problem to be solved. Maybe it was in the 2011 debt ceiling showdown, when they took the nation’s credit rating hostage, or in 2013, when they forced a federal shutdown to protest the health insurance law.
Republicans captured the House in 2010, but they didn’t use that power to cut favorable deals and pass legislation that might be signed into law. Instead, they reduced Congress to theater. House Republicans, unwilling to offend their base, killed immigration reform. In 2014, Republicans captured the Senate. Again, they spurned the opportunity to govern. Forty-seven Republican senators advised Iran not to sign a nuclear nonproliferation agreement with the United States. The Senate became such a farce that according to Rubio, there’s no point in attending, since nothing happens there but “show votes.”
Republicans no longer have a policy agenda. They have a scapegoating, base-stoking agenda. Their economic plan is to blame legal immigrants for the demise of upward mobility. Their social policy is to defund the nation’s leading birth-control provider and promote disobedience of court orders. Their foreign policy is to carpet-bomb Syria, insult the faith of our anti-ISIS partners, and void Iran’s pledge to abstain from nuclear weapons production.
In the race to the right, yesterday’s conservatives can’t keep up. John Boehner, a right-wing rebel in the House 20 years ago, has been purged as speaker by the GOP’s new hardliners. Kasich, another House rebel from the Boehner era, is now ridiculed in the presidential primaries as a liberal. Cruz and Rubio accuse each other, correctly, of having switched positions on immigration. Both men have shifted to the right—Rubio turning against illegal immigrants, Cruz turning against legal ones—in pursuit of angry white voters.
When you run a party this way, chasing after your most radical constituents—in Republican parlance, leading from behind—you shouldn’t be surprised to find that the audience you’ve cultivated doesn’t match your original principles. National Review’s Jan. 21 editorial, “Against Trump,” is eloquent but far too late. Today’s Republican electorate doesn’t belong to National Review. It belongs to Trump.
Trump is leading almost every national and statewide Republican poll. Together, he and Cruz are drawing the support of 60 percent of Republicans in the latest CNN/ORC poll, 58 percent in the ABC News/Washington Post poll, 54 percent in the Fox News poll, and 53 percent in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. In Iowa, Trump and Cruz are splitting 60 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. In New Hampshire, they control 47 percent of the vote. In South Carolina, they’re drawing 61 percent.
Even if all the establishment candidates pooled their support, they wouldn’t win. Together, Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Kasich are attracting only 18 percent of the Republican vote in the CNN/ORC poll, 22 percent in the ABC/Post poll, and 22 percent in the Fox News poll. The NBC/Journal poll found that even if the Republican field narrowed to Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, Rubio would still finish last by 5 percentage points. With Cruz removed, Trump would still beat Rubio, 52 percent to 45 percent.
Trump’s grip on this Republican electorate isn’t superficial. It’s based on shared attitudes. In the CNN/ORC poll, 34 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners picked Trump as the candidate who “best represents the values of Republicans like yourself.” Twenty-five percent picked Cruz; only 18 percent picked Rubio, Bush, Christie, or Kasich. Many surveys show that Republicans share Trump’s distrust of Muslims and his willingness to discriminate against them. In an analysis of the ABC/Post data, pollster Gary Langer found that “anti-immigrant views” and “interest in a candidate from outside the political establishment” were “the single strongest independent predictors of supporting Trump vs. any of his opponents.” These views now dominate the GOP.
The ABC/Post poll asked: “Overall, do you think immigrants from other countries mainly strengthen or mainly weaken American society?” Republicans and Republican leaners, by a margin of 50 percent to 38 percent, said immigrants weaken America. The rest of the sample, by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, said the opposite. The poll asked: “Would you like the next president to be someone who has experience in how the political system works, or someone from outside the existing political establishment?” Republicans and Republican leaners, by a margin of 54 percent to 42 percent, preferred an outsider. The rest of the sample, by a ratio of more than 3 to 1, preferred experience. The poll asked whether “America’s best days are ahead of it or behind it.” A 49 percent plurality of Republicans and Republican leaners said the country’s best days are behind it. The rest of the sample, by a ratio of 2 to 1, said the country’s best days lay ahead.
What these polls illustrate is a party adrift from America. By chasing the right and abandoning the middle, Republican politicians have developed a constituency that turns out in midterm elections and believes it’s entitled to control the country but doesn’t think like the rest of the population. Trump is on course to win the Republican presidential nomination and then lose the general election precisely because he mirrors this constituency. The crisis for leaders of the Republican establishment isn’t that Trump doesn’t represent their party. It’s that he does.