Why It's Hard for the GOP to Discredit Donald Trump

The Republican establishment struggles to control a candidate whose success is built on factors it finds convenient to ignore.

Dominick Reuter / Reuters

Over the weekend, many Republicans politicians and conservative intellectuals continued their attacks on Donald Trump, the businessman and publicity hound, hoping to drive him from the GOP primary before the first debate on August 6. Their end is desirable. Trump would make an awful president; his xenophobic demagoguery is discrediting; he adds nothing of value to the campaign; and he is cynically manipulating parts of the Republican Party’s base for his own ego-driven ends.

All the while, he’s damaging the GOP brand. And even in the unlikely event that he were to win its nomination, he would be an overwhelming underdog in the general election. Little wonder that so many on the right are eager for him to go away. But discrediting him probably won’t be as easy as harping on comments that Trump made disparaging John McCain’s status as a war hero because he was taken prisoner.

Yes, the comments were inane, offensive nonsense, as Matt Welch explains better than anyone. But Donald Trump has made headlines with inane nonsense for years, and his brash, offensive style seems to be part of his “I’m not a politician” appeal. He is succeeding among the part of his party that rallied around Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain—and while GOP moderates will assert themselves eventually, as they did in 2012 by nominating Mitt Romney and in 2008 with John McCain, farcical candidacies are difficult for the GOP to avoid or end quickly because the party is averse to certain truths that would help inoculate it against demagogues.

Here are six of them:

  1. When someone makes a lot of money in business that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’d make a good president or even a good steward of the economy.
  2. Just because Rush Limbaugh and other talk radio hosts take a figure seriously it doesn’t mean that anyone else should. Trusted conservative entertainers frequently fail to warn their audiences away from obvious hucksters.
  3. Mainstream media pundits and the Republican-Party establishment have their respective flaws, but that doesn’t mean that they’re always wrong and safely ignored. Sometimes their criticism of public figures is insightful and accurate. Their arguments should be weighed and grappled with, not reflexively dismissed.
  4. At times, transgressing against political correctness is a sign of intellectual integrity and bravery. More often, it requires no courage and is undertaken as a cynical gambit to get money, fame, or power from a block of disaffected Americans. Lots of figures who court conservatives are opportunists of this sort.
  5. The fact that a public figure drives the left crazy is not itself a good reason for conservatives to rally around them, no matter how emotionally satisfying some find it. Supporting a politician on that basis is shallow, irresponsible, and shameful.
  6. Bombastic rhetoric is not a proxy for conservatism. Too many GOP voters don’t see that, treating very conservative politicians like Jon Huntsman as RINO traitors while mistaking Trump-like poseurs for champions.

Stating all those facts plainly would be an unpleasant ordeal for most figures in the conservative movement, and it would positively undermine huckster entertainers like Limbaugh (who is presently counseling GOP politicians to make sure they don’t go too far criticizing Trump in case they have to support him in the general election)!

The results are predictable.

In the short term, the right benefits from avoiding those six truths: Obscuring them helps the GOP to fire up the base, ally with talented mass-media propagandists, and gain traction by playing on disdain for ideological adversaries rather than formulating a compelling alternative. In the longer run, GOP voters embrace more faulty heuristics than they otherwise would––and then they elevate national jokes in primary campaigns, unable to discern the difference between sound and unfair criticism. How big is the problem? We’ll see how far Donald Trump goes this year. Ironically, the longer he retains significant voter support, the less chance there is for a real alternative to GOP-establishment pathologies to emerge.