One of the hazards of watching the Legislature at work is that everything else in the world drops off the radar screen (baseball excepted). So it was that I missed Public Policy Polling’s tabulation of the Republican field that was released last week: Donald Trump 26% Michael Huckabee 17% Mitt Romney 15% Newt Gingrich 11% Sarah Palin 8% Ron Paul 5% Tim Pawlenty 4% Michelle Bachmann 4% This is a truly startling result. Trump is following the strategy Ronald Reagan used to propel himself to the presidency: Reagan expanded the Republican base by moving to the right, in violation of what used to be the basic principle that a candidate who wants to grow his constituency move toward the center. An article in the New Republic’s online edition today examines the Trump phenomenon: He is riding high in the polls on essentially the same customer-service-style political strategy that fellow entrepreneur Mitt Romney pursued, but a la Trump, stronger, bigger, crasser—and in a far more radical political environment, where the demand for an ultra-hard line on terrorism has been eclipsed by the niche demand for Birtherism, along with extreme policy positions that voters weren’t even obsessing about yet. Trump was quoted in the Financial Times as telling CNN, regarding Libya, “Either I’d go in and take the oil or I don’t go in at all . . . in the old days, when you have a war and you win, that nation is yours.” He also wants to tax Chinese imports. As I see it, Trump is borrowing from Rick Perry’s Texas playbook. Perry was the first extremist to emerge in this political cycle, the first to understand how virulent the right’s anger had become, the first to understand the power of the tea party, the first to openly contemplate secession and nullification; the first to embrace state’s rights, the first to fight every move of the Obama administration–the first, in short, to realize that the Republican constituency had radically changed. It remains a mystery to me why Perry hasn’t been rewarded for his foresight with an avid national following. Maybe there really is a Texas penalty, that after George W. Bush, Republicans nationally will accept almost anyone who will say almost anything, no matter how far out it is–except a Texan. I think Trump is a real threat to the GOP establishment. He has wealth, he has moxie, has has a rawness that appeals to the tea party types, and he is eager to sate their appetite for red meat. Even Perry doesn’t go so far as to embrace Birtherism or trying to confiscate Arab oil or slapping protective tariffs on China. Quoting from the New Republic article: The Republican establishment has perceived this as a threat—believing that Trump will drag the entire Republican field into a world where they cannot be taken seriously by general election voters—and launched an all-out effort to tar him. But the truth is that their effort may be a lost cause, for reasons that are intrinsic to the success of Trump’s consumer-focused approach: This year, GOP voters’ hunger for radicalism is so great that it can be filled by essentially anybody. Kill off Trump’s candidacy and the demand will remain, leaving an opening for yet another demagogic charlatan to take his place. Anyone who has watched the Texas House this session, especially the freshmen, knows the accuracy of the New Republic’s observation. The “hunger for radicalism” runs deep. The House leadership can no more control it than they can orchestrate the orbits of the planets. The Republican establishment has been fighting back, the article points out. Karl Rove, George Will, and the Club for Growth have all attacked Trump in recent days, for fear “that Trump will drag the entire Republican field into a world where they cannot be taken seriously by general election voters.” As the magazine sees it, the establishment is doomed to fail, because “GOP voters’ hunger for radicalism is so great that it can be filled by essentially anybody. Kill off Trump’s candidacy and the demand will remain, leaving an opening for yet another demagogic charlatan to take his place.” I buy this narrative. How is a relatively normal GOP candidate–say, Newt Gingrich, someone who has thought about policy–going to be able to rise above this din? He can’t. Huckabee might be able to because he has a good fireside manner. Romney, no way. I think the Republicans are in big trouble this election cycle–not here, because we have precisely the Republican constituency that will consume all the radicalism that’s fit for consumption–but in the rest of America. Unless something changes in the Republican field for 2012, or in the country, Barack Obama will be reelected, and the state Republican party will move farther and farther from the mainstream.
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