After tonight, unless the Super Tuesday polling is very, very wrong, Donald Trump will have largely finished crushing the rest of the Republican presidential field, and with it the plans of the various organizations and people who are described as making up the Republican party establishment. The Republican establishment will then begin making new plans, plans which involve supporting Donald Trump and trying to help him win the presidency in November.
But for now, the establishment is still trying to figure out how it failed to stop Trump. The party, the New York Times reported over the weekend, “has been gripped by a nearly incapacitating leadership vacuum and a paralytic sense of indecision and despair” in its efforts to find a way to nominate someone else.
Part of that indecision is that the Republican party is incapable of articulating an anti-Trump line. The parts of the case against Trump that are popular are the parts the party leaders don’t believe in, and the parts that the party leaders believe in are unpopular.
The Times coverage illustrated the latter point quite clearly:
At a recent presentation hosted by the billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch, the country’s most prolific conservative donors, their political advisers characterized Mr. Trump’s record as utterly unacceptable, and highlighted his support for government-funded business subsidies and government-backed health care, according to people who attended.
For decades now, Republicans leaders have pretended that elite policy goals—cutting and privatizing people’s health and retirement programs—are populist ones, based on the principle that rich people should never have to underwrite anything poor people might need. So Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the surviving avatars of the party leadership’s interests, ended up arguing in the last debate against Trump’s proposition that people should not die in the street.
Meanwhile, Trump’s appeal to white racial solidarity, which would seem to be the most obviously disgusting and disqualifying fact about him, is simply the basic Republican political strategy made explicit. Mitt Romney can demand that Trump make a show of repudiating the Ku Klux Klan, but Mitt Romney ran a presidential campaign that was almost exclusively supported by white people. To denounce a mobilized white bloc vote is to denounce the party’s only electoral hope.
The other reason that the party couldn’t beat Trump is even deeper between the lines in the Times account. Here’s how the paper described the establishment’s first missed opportunity:
Rivals who attacked him early, like Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal, the former governors of Texas and Louisiana, received little backup and quickly faded.
Did people fail to rally behind Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal because Donald Trump was so fearsome? Or was it maybe because Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal are ridiculous ninnies, who could never come close to convincing anyone to make them president?
Here’s the part that’s missing from all the counterfactual narratives about how someone could have or should have defeated Trump: who?
Who inside the overstuffed elephant piñata was ever going to command real popular support? Jeb Bush couldn’t even win the presidential contest inside his own family. Ben Carson was just trying to scam money out of people. Rubio has never been anything but a moderately talented sixth-grader’s drawing of what an imaginary politician might look like. Ted Cruz is objectively repulsive.
Now, in a panic, the surviving candidates are belatedly trying to attack Trump for being a con artist and a predatory businessman. Trump certainly is those things, but predatory business is a key constituency of the establishment. Cruz tried to abolish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Rubio, before denouncing Trump University, collected thousands of dollars from the now-defunct profiteering Corinthian Colleges.
The party establishment can’t put forward a leader to stop Trump because it doesn’t produce leaders. The guiding Republican message is that the whole concept of government is futile, and it has, by and large, lived up to that. Legislators exist to obstruct basic government functions for a while, then to score real jobs as lobbyists. Governors exist to rubber-stamp bills written for them by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
The only people who know what to do in America are businesspeople—who would have to abandon their businesses and take a huge pay cut to apply their expertise to the public sector. To run for office, that is, you must first have washed out of business.
Meanwhile, the party fought for unlimited campaign spending, so that the first requirement for any establishment-minded candidate is to win over the megadonor class, shuffling past actual piles of dog shit to beg for support. The result was a debate stage full of weaklings, failures, painfully small-time apparatchiks, and the occasional outright nihilist. Haters and losers.
This was the necessary backdrop for the transformation of Donald Trump from a shambling pop-culture punchline to an emergent political Great Man. If Trump was farsighted enough to spot his opportunity, it is not because he is some sort of giant. It’s because he’s standing on a whole pile of tiny, tiny people.