Two things happened within 24 hours of each other that almost certainly caused GOP leaders even more nervous anxiety over GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. One was his very Trump-like pronouncement that all Muslims should be banned from the country. This roused the furor of nearly everyone who had access to a microphone and reporter’s notepad. That foremost included President Obama.
The thing that didn’t stir the storm as much as the Muslim ban did, but in some ways was far more telling was the CNN/WMUR poll that found that Trump had opened up an even bigger gap in his lead in the early New Hampshire primary. The poll was not just another of the legions of popularity or likeability polls. It measured the sentiment and preference of likely primary voters on the two biggest ticket election issues, namely the handling of terrorism and the economy. Trump was the runaway choice on both counts. The Trump show that began as part farce, part entertainment, and part media and public titillation, all of a sudden was now deadly serious business.
GOP leaders from House Majority leader Paul Ryan to Arizona Senator John McCain feverishly scrambled to double and triple their distance from his inflammatory remarks. Their fear is that Trump could not only cost the GOP any shot at the White House but blow their majority hold on the Senate as well. They blamed Trump for this. But the blame is not Trump’s but theirs.
From the moment he flirted with presidential candidacy, not this go round but in 2012, some in the GOP saw Trump’s mediagenic persona, brashness, and take-no-prisoners style as an asset. He could tap the basest instincts among a wide swatch of disconnected and alienated GOP hard-right faithful. They were the ones who stayed away from the polls in droves in 2008 and 2012. Their absence was the tipping factor that assured the election of Obama and his return to the White House. There were two keys to try and get them back. One was to pander hard to their fear and xenophobia of minorities, gays, immigrants and Muslims.
The other was to have someone willing to spew as much verbal bile at Obama as possible. Trump fit the bill. And the issue of choice in 2012 was the thoroughly phony and idiotic issue of Obama’s supposed foreign birth. Trump latched onto the issue and turned it and him into a political cause celebre in the run-up to the 2012 presidential contest. He well knew that while it was a taboo subject to raise in polite political circles, a significant number, if not a majority of Republicans actually believed or wanted to believe that Obama’s birth was a legitimate issue to dump back on the political table. This was not an insignificant point since polls repeatedly showed that a majority of Republicans believed that Obama was foreign born and even a closet radical Muslim fellow traveler.
Stirring the pot on this issue closely tied in with the other issue that could get the juices flowing. That was illegal immigration. Trump again was the man. His slander of Latino immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists” got quiet nods among many, tons of media clips, and the crafting of him as a candidate not afraid to tell it like he saw it on an emotional issue no matter who it offended. It didn’t much matter how much of a polarizing figure he was. He made stupendous copy, brought oceans of attention to the GOP, and suddenly made ultra conservatives cheer lustily for him. While he toured the country getting rock star-like crowds and adoration from them in 2015, GOP presidential candidates handled him with the daintiest of kid gloves. The two exceptions have been Jeb Bush and John Kasich. They feign shock at his rhetoric and the supposed potential damage it does to the GOP in the long term. Yet, they’re careful not to call for his drumming out of the GOP.
The GOP’s good cop, bad cop ploy with Trump is not new. 2012 GOP presidential contender, Mitt Romney, and the entire GOP establishment publicly hammered Trump for dredging up the phony birther issue. And in a political self-righteous pique, they pretended to distance themselves from him claiming he did not represent what the GOP purportedly stood for.
We’re seeing an exact repeat of that script again this time with GOP leaders again publicly expressing indignation at Trump’s toxic slurs about Muslims. And they make almost identical pronouncements again that he’s a one man wrecking ball of what the GOP supposedly stands for. But Trump is not doing anything that he hasn’t always done, and that’s spout any foul mouthed, incendiary racial, Muslim, immigrant and Obama slur that comes into his skull. This was and is the Trump the GOP has turned loose hoping to provide fodder for media sensationalism, while stoking the frustration and rage of packs of unreconstructed bigots, America firsters, and ultra-conservatives. If their Frankenstein creation got out of hand, it doesn’t change the brutal fact that they created it.