This week, billionaire businessman Donald Trump skyrocketed to a lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. The lead is significant. One recent poll shows him up 11 points over his nearest rival. Nationally, he commands the support of nearly one in four Republican voters.
Personally, I debated whether engaging Trump as a candidate was simply adding to the hoopla. Ultimately, though, he is the front-runner. He is commanding far more support among Republicans than Bernie Sanders is among Democrats nationally (that is not to compare their bona fides, but the realities of public support). What’s more, among every individual running for president, only one candidate—Hillary Clinton—commands more primary support than he does. And thus, I find myself writing about the Republican front-runner.
My internal machinations over Trump’s candidacy pale in comparison to those of the GOP. Republican candidates and the establishment are furious, uneasy, and scratching their heads as Trump—a political novice—has risen to polling prominence. And, he has done so by relying on a scorched-Earth, rhetorically bold, substantively vacant message. Typically billionaires seek to influence politics quietly and out of public view. Trump has decided to do so loudly and publicly. The GOP is surprised, but they really shouldn’t be.
The party may be in a bit of primary disarray, as its frontrunner displays an awkward blend of embarrassing and offensive. Yet, Trump is just being Trump—nothing new, nothing reinvented, nothing disingenuous—just Trump. And the irony is that the party that is now looking for any way possible to cause Trump’s fall is the party wholly responsible for his rise.
Call him what you will, but Donald Trump offers the same personality, tone, message, and gruffness that he always has. He is not a Mitt Romney who suddenly found distaste for government-subsidized health care and overnight became a skeptical of immigration reform. He is more self-assured than that. He is not a George W. Bush who spoke of small government while championing No Child Left Behind, expanding domestic surveillance, and exploding the deficit. He is more consistent than that.
Trump is Trump: what you see is what you get—and in many ways what you always got. The worldview, personality traits, unending self-confidence, sharp tongue, and refusal to play nice has always characterized Trump’s public persona. Yet, now the Republican Party that has given him an institutional platform to introduce those behaviors to the political arena.
Over the past two decades, the Republican Party has built a messaging machine that at times focused on personal attacks, at times tasteless in nature. Those attacks have been aimed at Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Max Cleland, to name a few. But they have also been aimed at fellow Republicans (just ask John McCain about his experience in South Carolina in the 2000 presidential primary). Over time, Republican politics seized vitriol and disdain and personal distrust and even hatred as a means of accomplishing political victory or making political distinctions.
As a president’s citizenship and legitimacy were questioned, the party grew stronger. As Democrats were compared to communists, Nazis or whatever enemy du jour was convenient to publicly criticize health care or immigration policy or international negotiations or financial regulation or the stimulus law, the party grew bolder.
There seemed to be few boundaries in the mudslinging of politics, until this week when Trump criticized John McCain’s war record. Though previous criticisms of John McCain appeared acceptable (the 2000 Republican primary) as were attacks on veterans (the 2004 presidential election or the 2002 Georgia Senate Election). But as the GOP focused energies on political combat above compromise, many took notice, and Donald Trump saw an opportunity. The kind of divisive, personalized, combative, angry, eye-popping rhetoric the Republican Party had become accustomed to was the same kind of rhetoric around which Donald Trump built a very successful and lucrative career. In many ways, it was a marriage in the making. As a result, Trump’s behavior—and his traction in the Republican electorate—was not only foreseeable but tacitly endorsed if not actively encouraged by a transformation in the GOP.
And now, a man who has always behaved in an aggressive, non-politically correct, blunt and outrageous way has found his home in a party that has lamented a president who is weak, a culture that is too P.C., and a society that is more nanny state than self-reliant. The combination is one that Republicans look at mouth agape and seemingly caught off guard. Yet, one has to look back with equal shock at how the party never saw this coming.
The party that heralds personal responsibility ought to take some. Don’t blame Donald Trump for the current state of party affairs. Trump is not the cause of the party’s problems; he is perhaps a symptom or a consequence of them. One cannot applaud outrageous comments about a president’s citizenship, stand idly by when an individual labels an entire ethnic group “rapists and murderers,” and then be horrified when a candidate for office crosses your own personal line of acceptable rhetoric—you have to come, at least, to expect it.
If the GOP doesn’t like Trump, the party should look inward at what choices and political dynamics have encouraged a wave of their voters to support Trump’s candidacy. They shouldn’t blame Trump for being the same person he always has been. Donald Trump hasn’t changed; it is the Republican Party that has.
It is a difficult time for the Republican Party as the candidate currently rising above the pack seems just as comfortable attacking fellow Republicans as he does President Obama or Hillary Clinton. However, Trump won’t stay atop the polls forever, and he surely will not be president. But until then, the GOP field—despite the presence of many qualified and competent candidates—looks like a circus, and Donald Trump is the ringleader who the party has inadvertently apprenticed.