It has been quite an experience — half amusing, half alarming — to behold the sudden transformation of Donald Trump from pariah to desperate hope of the Republican Party. As it happens, the moment of metanoia can be located with some precision.
Enlightenment, or perhaps it was only calculation of self-interest, came just a week ago on Monday, January 4. It was then that Donald Trump, responding to Hillary Clinton’s charge that he was “sexist,” said that Bill Clinton was “one of the great women abusers of all time” and, not-so-by-the-way, that Hillary was an “enabler” of his behavior.
Overnight, Bill Clinton went from being one of Hillary’s biggest assets to being a liability of incalculable proportions, about as useful to her presidential ambitions as last year’s sloughed off skin is to a snake.
Who else could have accomplished that? It wasn’t what Trump said; it wasn’t even how he said it, not really. It was who said it.
Donald Trump yesterday: an embarrassment, a “complete idiot” (Karl Rove), “offensive and outlandish” (Marco Rubio). “Every candidate for president,” wrote Lindsey Graham (remember him?) in a tweet, “needs to do the right thing & condemn” Trump.
But that was yesterday. Now we find many Republicans clustering round The Donald.
Phyllis Schlafly described Trump as “the last hope for America,” while Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party, recently said that Trump was among the “varsity” candidates. “Look at our debates. We’re blowing the doors off these debates,” Priebus crowed. “They’re becoming like World Series-type events that we could never have predicted.”
And why is that?
After Trump, in the aftermath of the Islamic terrorist slaughter in San Bernardino, called for a complete moratorium on Muslim immigration to the U.S., Jeb Bush tweeted that Trump was “unhinged.”
A clueless Bush supporter named Mike Murphy paid for a billboard that read “Donald Trump is unhinged. — Jeb Bush”. Hot Air called it “the saddest political ad ever.” It took about five minutes with Photoshop to show why. In two shakes of a comb-over the internet was abuzz with a version that read:
“Set all our donor money on fire.” — Mike Murphy.
What’s going on? A large segment of the Republican political establishment, blindsided by Trump’s success, has decided — cautiously, in a hedging-your-bets sort of way — that Trump might just have what it takes to beat Hillary.
Three points. First, as I have argued in this space before (and here), the Trump phenomenon owes a great deal to the widespread, visceral impatience with the business-as-usual politically correct establishment, Republican every-bit-as-much as Democrat. Trump is not a conservative. As Kevin Williamson has shown in meticulous and hilarious detail, Trump “spent most of his life as a progressive Democrat, a patron of Charles Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Rodham Clinton”:
He is a lifelong crony capitalist who boasts of using his wealth to buy political favors to make himself wealthier still. He is a proponent of the thieving Kelo eminent-domain regime and has attempted to suborn local governments into using eminent domain to seize properties in order to clear the way for his casino developments. He was until the day before yesterday as absolutist a pro-abortion advocate as any you’ll find at an Emily’s List meeting. He has proposed daft, confiscatory wealth taxes and remains in accord with Warren Buffet and Elizabeth Warren on taxation. His views on trade and immigration are much more like those of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, than they are anything that might plausibly be described as “conservative” in the American context. He is apparently incapable of stringing together three complete English sentences, lies reflexively and instinctively, and contradicts his own pronouncements at every turn. On the verge of his seventieth birthday, his mind remains unsettled about the most elementary issues of our time.
True, all true. But it’s not clear that — while we are still here listening to the warm-up bands waiting for the main event — it matters.
And while we wait, Trump is excellent entertainment. That is point two, summed up with characteristic panache by Mark Steyn a few days ago in a column called “Notes on a Phenomenon.” Reflecting on Trump’s recent performance behind enemy lines, i.e., in Bernie Sander’s HQ, Burlington, People’s Republic of Vermont, Steyn noted:
Trump has no prompters. He walks out, pulls a couple of pieces of folded paper from his pocket, and then starts talking. Somewhere in there is the germ of a stump speech, but it would bore him to do the same poll-tested, focus-grouped thing night after night, so he basically riffs on whatever’s on his mind. … But in a strange way it all hangs together: It’s both a political speech, and a simultaneous running commentary on his own campaign.
That’s true. And it is also true, as Steyn points out, that it makes for great entertainment:
It’s also hilarious. I’ve seen no end of really mediocre shows at the Flynn [in Burlington] in the last quarter-century, and I would have to account this the best night’s entertainment I’ve had there with the exception of the great jazz singer Dianne Reeves a few years back. He’s way funnier than half the stand-up acts I’ve seen at the Juste Pour Rires comedy festival a couple of hours north in Montreal. And I can guarantee that he was funnier than any of the guys trying their hand at Trump Improv night at the Vermont Comedy Club a couple of blocks away. He has a natural comic timing.
We should not underestimate the power of performance. A free variety show laced with a quota of unpredictable politically incorrect banter is a powerful draw, especially when the media can’t stop slobbering over the man. It doesn’t matter that they hate him: it matters that they cover him. And the tut-tutting by nearly all the other Republican candidates is just too schoolmarmish not to love. It’s all a bit like Ed Sullivan ordering the cameras off Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips, or insisting that The Rolling Stones sing “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” instead of “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”
That said, a variety act is one thing, running the United States of America is something else again. I believe a lot of people who have hitched a ride on the Trump Express understand this.
Exactly when they will hop off isn’t yet clear. Sooner or later, I think, they will. But I am not at all convinced that the Republican establishment hasn’t bought a ticket to the very last stop. And this brings me to my final point.
The Republican establishment believes that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic candidate. Digesting how Donald Trump just neutered Bill Clinton, many of that tribe are taking a second and third look at Marco Rubio and wondering: “Does he have what it takes? Could he have taken out Bill Clinton with a tossed-off remark as did Trump?”
As I have been saying for many months now, I am not at all convinced that Hillary Clinton will be the nominee, or, if she is the nominee, that she would be elected. As the classified emails that rocketed about the world from her personal email server keep being leaked, I suspect she is edging closer to indictment, or at least popular, and therefore crippling, delegitimation.
Later this week, 13 Hours, a movie about what happened in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, will hit theaters. The movie makers stress that it is “not political.” The names “Obama” and “Hillary Clinton” are never uttered. But the film is said to tell the truth about what happened in that consular outpost, which means that it will show how four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, were slaughtered by Islamic terrorists because Washington, worried about political fallout in an election years, refused to send help that was just minutes away. The more popular that movie is, the poorer are Hillary Clinton’s chances.
But the real gravamen of my third point revolves around Ted Cruz, not Hillary Clinton. I suspect that an unstated but large consideration in the sudden shift towards Donald Trump on the part of the Republican Establishment is that its members are terrified of Ted Cruz.
They are right to be terrified of him, for were he to become president, the gravy train that is business-as-usual in Washington would make an abrupt stop, everyone off, please, and it would be as much of a shake-up for Republicans as Democrats.
What you hear people say is that “Donald Trump may have the best chance of beating Hillary Clinton.” But what does that means? “Maybe Trump can beat Hillary, assuming she is the Democratic candidate, but anyway, despite his bluster, he really is deep down a pay-to-play kind of guy, just like us. Ted Cruz, on the contrary, really means all that stuff about ending the ‘Washington Cartel’ and restoring Constitutional restraints on government. It’s OK to say that in election years, but we don’t want to elect someone who will actually try to do it.”
Remember those old RCA advertisements? That’s the sound of His Master’s Voice talking. The thing is — and here’s a prediction to cap off my three points — the thing is that all those Trump supporters are just as allergic to the Washington Cartel as are Cruz supporters. And once the warm-up band is off stage and the main event begins, I suspect a lot of them will cluster round Ted Cruz as the one truly serious and accomplished candidate in the race.