I was not surprised to hear, over the weekend, that Donald Trump continued to brood over Megyn Kelly’s “very nasty behavior” during the first Republican presidential debate—or even that, in an appearance on CNN that evening, he offered an Archie-Bunker-esque opinion on its underlying cause. The reaction from conservatives, however, was illuminating.
The day before, grassroots conservatives had begun arriving in Atlanta for the annual RedState gathering, and Trump was among the Republican presidential candidates scheduled to appear over the weekend. On Friday evening, however, RedState’s Erick Erickson, announced that he had been compelled to rescind the invitation: “As much as I do personally like Donald Trump, his comment about Megyn Kelly on CNN is a bridge too far for me.”
Many conservatives rallied round on social media. They declared that they would #StandWithMegyn, and commended Erickson for standing up to this bully. Trump’s actual supporters, however, were outraged by Erickson’s announcement, and their fury was facilitated by the Trump campaign itself, which passed Erickson’s email address along to its supporters. The next day, shortly before Jeb Bush took the stage, Erickson luxuriated in the vitriol he had elicited. He read some of the emails he had received overnight, highlighting examples of abuse directed at himself, misogynistic comments about Kelly, and racial slurs about Barack Obama . The intended message, I think, was that Erickson is a hero. Like Trump, who traveled to the dread city of Laredo to confirm the existence of America’s southern border, he had taken a brave stand, despite the great personal danger.
The message I received, however, was that Republicans are starting to get seriously nervous about their Trump problem, without fully understanding the nature of the problem, or its severity.
The outcry over the weekend suggested that the party appreciates the problem at hand: Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. He was polling at around 24 percent Thursday morning and the debate, which broke viewership records, probably did him no damage. As long as that remains the case he can continue to embarrass the party without remorse: many Republicans would like to disavow Trump, who has not historically cast himself as politically conservative, but he is the front-runner for the Republican nomination at this time. And even though his quest for the party’s nomination will presumably be thwarted, his degree of support, and the ardor of supporters, raises the prospect that he could hand Democrats the White House in November by proceeding to run as a third-party candidate. At the debate, he pointedly refused to rule out that prospect.
Trump’s popularity, however, is ultimately a symptom of a problem that Texas Republicans have been grappling with for some time. If so, the real problem is more serious. Conservatives are naturally inclined to understand Trump’s front-runner status as a mirage, the result of a collision between his pre-existing name recognition and personal wealth, populist anger and anxiety among the Republican electorate, and the media’s natural interest in drama. Those factors may help explain his initial reception, especially in a crowded field. But Trump has been trumpling around the presidential race for almost two months. He has made no effort to prove his asserted qualifications, or to explain anything in his long and flagrantly checkered record. When criticized, or even questioned, he adopts an injured posture, declaring himself to be the victim of the political establishment, or the media elite, or a hormonal woman, or a jealous loser, or any of the other antagonists who can’t handle the truth. When Kelly pressed him about some of his nasty rhetoric about women, for example, he preened: “The big problem this country has is being politically correct.” For Trump to cast himself as a victim this way is so obviously risible that it’s hard to believe he’s doing it, much less that anyone’s falling for it.
And yet Trump’s previous offenses have actually boosted his standing. His comments about Kelly are obviously beyond the bounds of civility. But conservatives were denouncing a man who, having wriggled out of service in the Vietnam War thanks to student deferments and a bone spur in one of his feet, although he can’t remember which one, scolded John McCain for having been a prisoner of war. This is Trump, speaking truth to power: “I like guys that don’t get captured.” As Greg Gutfeld put it on Friday, the 20 percent of Republican voters who supported Trump going into the debate aren’t likely to get squeamish now: “Again, once you’re okay with the McCain joke, there are no limits up or down.”
Most Republicans, meanwhile, clearly do recoil at Trump: the same polls that show him as the front-runner show that his unfavorables and “absolutely no way in hell”-type numbers are far too high for him to win the nomination. A number of the other candidates have been forthright in their criticisms—none more so than Rick Perry, who continues to stoically slog away as in his new role as the candidate so many Republicans seem to be looking for, but are somehow unable to see. Conservatives may be especially frustrated, actually, due to the widespread perception that Trump represents their segment of the party.
I’m sympathetic to Republicans who are understandably bewildered by Trump’s seemingly intractable support. At the same time I had a cynical reaction to Erickson’s epiphany. His timing put the RedState Gathering, and his virtuous disinvitation, in the media spotlight. And Erickson’s own history of aggression and incivility are well-known. He only came to my attention in the first place because he is among a number of right-wing media figures who have used their platforms to launch non sequitur personal attacks on me over the years, in public and private forums. These incidents have shown me that there is clearly some kind of appetite, on the right, for righteous aggrievement, even where no plausible grievance can be discerned.
And they’ve given me a sense of the playbook. It’s no coincidence that he keeps casting himself as the victim. His supporters have already succumbed to the premise that Trump is a conservative outsider—a noble underdog, determined to fight the establishment and to speak truth to power. Having accepted that premise, they are predisposed to take any criticism or disagreement as further evidence for Trump’s claim that he is surrounded by powerful enemies who are determined to thwart him for their own selfish or corrupt or ideological reasons. His ultimate failure will be taken as proof that the game is rigged–against the candidate, but also against people like themselves, his supporters.
This sounds far-fetched at first glance, because you would have to be almost willfully gullible to believe Trump’s version of events. He is a wealthy and well-connected businessman, a product of privilege and an icon of privilege. He is a direct beneficiary of things he is supposedly campaigning against, including outsourcing, large-scale unauthorized immigration, and political cronyism. He has a long history of public support for progressive priorities like single-payer health care and abortion rights. During the debate, asked about his prior enthusiasm for the former, he added insult to injury. “It works in Canada,” Trump shrugged. “It works incredibly well in Scotland.” Republicans in Texas have been primaried for far less.
And that points to the more serious problem. Trump’s supporters have been groomed, assiduously, by all the carnies that came before him and are still running the same playbook. I find it telling that Erickson, in an interview with Molly Ball discussing the disinvitation, once again made time to cast blame on the establishment, to remind conservatives that they are the real victims in the party’s internal struggles, and to assure Trump supporters that their grievances are legitimate, even if their enthusiasm is misdirected: “The Republican Party created Donald Trump, because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.”
Versions of this argument have been made ad nauseam since the beginning of the Tea Party movment. It has a certain plausibility, with Obama in the White House and Democrats in Congress reasonably animated, if not necessarily in the majority. But Erickson’s selling some snake oil here. The Republican establishment didn’t create Trump. Texas is the proof.
For the past two decades, that is, Republicans have controlled state government from top to bottom. Their hegemonic power is backstopped by a state constitution that effectively necessitates conservatism over squishiness. Conservative voters have every reason to be satisfied by the leadership, and it appears that they do: in 2014 Texans favored the Republican Party by a 20-point margin. The Texas establishment, in other words, is not Congress, or the Obama administration, or the surrender caucus. The state has been a standing rebuke to Washington DC, Obama, and Democrats in general since well before 2009, when Perry became the first major elected official to speak at a Tea Party rally, here in Austin.
And yet all too many of Texas’s conservatives have succumbed to the same sense of victimization that Erickson has been encouraging, and subscribed to the same grievances. And this mentality has proven consequential, ironically. As a direct result the success of the establishment–Texas’s general elections have become an afterthought. The real action has moved to the Republican primaries—and even worse, the runoffs—in which challengers duke it out to claim the mantle of “most conservative.” Since Texas Republicans were already conservative to begin with, our elections now hinge on differences that are genuinely marginal, if not flat-out fictions.
You would think that Texas conservatives would be more resistant to blowhards like Trump, or at least more capable of scrutinizing a candidate’s credentials. Regrettably, though, we are not. Our new attorney general, Ken Paxton, was charged with three felonies last week. Our new lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, campaigned on border security rhetoric that was basically indistinguishable from Trump’s. Our new comptroller, Glenn Hegar, is turning out to be very good, which is a blessed relief. Still, it’s slightly ominous that he won the nomination by keeping quiet about his actual credentials for the job, and talking about his pro-life record. As for the Lege—well, let’s leave it at this. When it comes to getting Trumpled, Texas is the tip of the spear.
Even today, there are self-identified conservative activists who see the establishment, often personified by Speaker Joe Straus, as the culprit behind the state’s travails. Just last week, for example, EmpowerTexans went to elaborate lengths to argue that Straus had somehow engineered the indictment of Ken Paxton, who is the attorney general of Texas and, as his spokesman put it last month, “the victim”. And the base has given no indication that victory mitigates their grievances. Last week, the lieutenant governor felt moved to criticize Trump’s “wild and personal attacks” in a Facebook post last week. It wasn’t a scathing denunciation; Patrick commended Trump for focusing on the issue, and expressed concern for how such rhetoric might damage the party’s prospects next November. And yet the post was swiftly deleted after a number of Patrick’s supporters weighed in—on Trump’s side.
Traditionally, a major function of the Texas establishment is to provide the people with some comic relief. But the indictment of our attorney general is a joke at our expense. So is the idea that the Texas grassroots, whose sense of safety should be somewhat assuaged by the state’s ongoing border security surge, are still susceptible to Trump’s idea that no one was talking about the issue until he raised it in June.
And there was nothing even remotely funny about the news that on Friday, state troopers responded to an act of arson in the Capitol’s underground parking garage, in which a car was set on fire, and that earlier in the day they had also confronted an attempted break-in at the Speaker’s apartment behind the House gallery. No one was hurt, thankfully. But considering that the year began with armed activists angrily confronting a state representative in his own office, and now we have someone setting cars on fire underneath the Capitol, I think conservatives should consider the possibility that the politics of grievance can’t be glibly justified as showbiz.
Neither can Trump’s candidacy. And so it’s unsettling that so many conservatives, and some of the candidates, are trying to balance their criticisms of Trump with comments about the anger that’s propelled him to the front of the field. I understand the impulse to be gracious. That’s how I’ve learned that that there’s a fine line between acknowledging grievances and legitimating them. Considering that Trump’s supporters are already rallying around a man wallowing in apparently limitless self-pity, I’d say it’s risky to give them a blank check for angry brooding. The Republican Party’s Trump problem will linger, even after his candidacy ends in defeat. No need to create more victims along the way.