Monday, January 25, 2016

by Reed Galen

Quote by a Smart Person: "Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change." Thomas Hardy

Days Until Iowa Caucuses: 7

Welcome to the American Singularity.

Next week, Iowans will go to their churches, high school gyms and fire houses to officially begin the 2016 presidential nominating process. And, as time grows short for the dozen or so Republican campaigns still in the race, the GOP must face the possibility that a true political outsider is likely to take home the prize that is Iowa. More than an outsider, though, either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz most likely will have far more staying power than either of the two past winners, Gov. Mike Huckabee (’08) and Sen. Rick Santorum (’12).

This possibility has led Republican leaders to determine which Hobson’s Choice they can most accept should either Cruz or Trump march to the nomination. Both candidates will have trouble with the mechanics of running a General Election campaign, and create absolute panic about how they might treat the current power class – the establishment Republicans - should an interloper occupy the White House.

Navel Gazing

All the work that’s been done by the Republican National Committee and various conservative offshoots since Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential bid to “re-brand” the party and complete an “autopsy” on the GOP were a) unable to even marginally shift the positions of its local and national candidates or, b) more closely control the rest of the 2016 nomination process.

The authors of the Growth and Opportunity Project, at least three of whom either work for Jeb Bush (Sally Bradshaw), are supporting him (Zori Fonalledas) or, are related to one of his advisers (Henry Barbour) apparently weren’t speaking for the “soul” of the Party when they made their recommendations three years ago.

In a vacuum, utilizing well-seasoned and well-respected operatives and leaders to author such a study makes sense. It is well constructed and presented; it appeals to the donor class, the political media, and most of the people (myself included) who work professionally in Republican politics. However, by definition, because such a report is conducted inside the “Establishment” bubble, it was either unable or unwilling to see a very real and tangible anger and disgust churning at the local level.

Roars from the Hustings

The anger of activist Republicans was largely dormant during the presidency of George W. Bush. There will always be quarters of any political movement for which there is no acceptable level of purity. But during the first decade of the 21st Century, President Bush and the White House were able to work with the base when needed.

Following President Barack Obama’s election, however, the wheels of Republican discontent began to turn. The anger and fury of that engine was fully engaged by the summer of 2010 as the Tea Party was born and Republicans recaptured the United States House of Representatives. Many Tea Party candidates, specifically for the US Senate, won their primaries against Establishment contenders but were too far outside the mainstream politically to be able to capture their states in the General Election.

And, despite nominating dozens of very conservative candidates in districts and states across the country, the Establishment still wasn’t truly listening. Romney’s nomination in 2012, against an altogether weak field of opponents, likely allowed the mythology that the Establishment slice of Republican voters would always be there to rescue the locals from themselves to continue. 2016 may change that dynamic forever. Short of Marco Rubio coalescing the moderates, a phoenix-like resurrection of Jeb Bush or an explosion of support for Chris Christie or John Kasich, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz appear to have the inside (though by no means easy or definitive) inside track to the nomination.

A Toothless Lion Roars?

Last week the National Review published a stunning collection of essays from highly respected conservative thought leaders – all of them making their individual, and well-constructed arguments against the nomination of Donald J. Trump. These were not just think-tankers or columnists (though they were represented) but also radio hosts and activists who have enormous followings among Republican primary voters. Reading through them, the baseline argument is that Trump is no conservative. Many of his past positions put him squarely at odds with modern conservative orthodoxy. But, given his continued popularity and sustained support since his entrance into the race last summer, all those arguments, even when accepting that there is anger among the faithful, are still unlikely to sway someone who sees Trump as the truth-teller the country needs.

Which begs the question: If Americans writ-large now largely distrust institutions, have very conservative Republicans (as a sub-set) come to view even their own house organs with suspicion? Or are those supporting Trump truly conservative at all? If a voter believes Wall Streeters should pay higher taxes and free trade has wrecked American industry (both anathema to the conservative intelligentsia) how can her or she be a real conservative? Or has the activist wedge of the GOP actually moved more toward a Rick Santorum-style populism – socially conservative but blue collar in the rest of its outlook?

That the National Review was disinvited from hosting an upcoming RNC-sponsored debate shows how seriously the Party takes the possibility of a Trump nomination. Excluding NR also prevents Trump from pulling a Newt, Cruz or Ben Carson-style bashing of the media (conservative or not) that would likely bring joy to his supporters.

Evolutionary Politics

Just as organisms within nature have their evolution shaped by external factors – sources of food or protection from predators, perhaps 2016 represents the manifestation of a years-or even decades-long metamorphosis that we have all missed. Whatever rebranding efforts party leaders may undertake will have only marginal effect on the body as a whole. Activist Republicans and their beliefs have been shaped by what’s happened (or not happened) in Washington, around the world and in their own lives.

It should not surprise any of us that their worldview, shaped by external, evolutionary forces as its been, is both immune to the messages of a party they don’t really know, and is in search of someone, even Donald Trump of all people, who appears to display both the empathy and the shared anger they feel today.

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AuthorReed Galen