Alex Massie: Republican party on shaky ground

Donald Trump appeals to the voters who feel the US is going to "hell in a handcart". Picture: Getty
Donald Trump appeals to the voters who feel the US is going to "hell in a handcart". Picture: Getty
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Trump’s bid to be Republican party candidate for the presidency shows the toxicity of the brand, writes Alex Massie

Every four years it is necessary to remind ourselves that HL Mencken was on the money when he observed that “No-one in this world… has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”.

The career of Donald Trump, always teetering on the edge of self-parody though it is, proves the essential accuracy of Mencken’s withering scorn.

In his spare time, when he’s not trolling Alex Salmond or building the world’s greatest golf courses (sic), Trump thinks he might grant the United States the honour of being that republic’s 45th president.

This, like so much else in Trump’s existence, might ordinarily be thought a fine practical joke; a piece of performance art not to be taken seriously. Except that Trump is, apparently, serious and, more oddly still, a hefty chunk of the Republican party’s base – whose approval Trump courts – seem inclined to take it seriously too.

Two recent opinion polls from the crucial early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire put Trump in second place. That is, at least in part, a reflection of Trump’s celebrity. Thanks to his role as host of The Apprentice and Trump’s relentless appetite for publicity, everyone knows who “The Donald” (as he ludicrously styles himself) is. Some of his would-be rivals, such as Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, are less established names.

Even so, mere celebrity cannot explain away all Trump’s appeal. A new poll of Republican voters in North Carolina puts Trump in first place with 16 per cent of the vote. In ordinary circumstances, Trump’s extremism might be thought disqualifying but this misunderstands the point of his candidacy. The extremism is Trump’s unique selling point. So when Trump says, as he did recently, of Mexican immigrants “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” he is making his case for the Grand Old Party (GOP) nomination, not showing himself unworthy of it.

Trump will not win the Republican nomination any more than Bernie Sanders, the left-wing Senator from Vermont, will win the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. This is certain. Nevertheless, the fact so many conservatives are prepared to even flirt with the idea of supporting Trump should, in the end, embarrass the conservative movement.

Moreover, Trump’s current ascendancy is another reminder of the demographic vice in which the Republican party is trapped. More than ever, the GOP is the party of white men and while, clearly, this remains a vital constituency white men are now a smaller part of the American electorate than ever before. Trump is the white man’s candidate in the party of white men. In North Carolina, for instance, 66 per cent of “very conservative” voters approve of Trump and he is nearly twice as popular amongst male voters as he is with women Republicans.

Trump appeals to the “Hell in a Handcart” constituency of voters. Those people – disproportionately likely to be white men – who feel the United States is going to the dogs. Those voters who, to put this as delicately as possible, have never really accepted the legitimacy of Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency.

Trump, you will recall, was at the forefront of the “birther” movement disputing Obama’s North American birth and, hence, his eligibility to be president. Transparently daft though this was, it earned Trump enormous publicity and, less importantly, the affections of the lunatic fringe.

No proposition is so eccentric it won’t be endorsed by one in ten voters and Trump’s candidacy, even in these early stages of the nominating process, proves this beyond any reasonable doubt. Be that as it may, it is also notable that few of Trump’s opponents have dared to criticise him for his comments about Mexicans. Deep down they understand – or fear – that something about Trump appeals to some dark corner of the conservative soul.

That corner is filled with people, men mostly, who yearn for straight-shooting (a term I use advisedly) Republicans who will “tell it as it is”. A constituency that feels itself increasingly marginalised in an America in which whites will soon become a minority. This is a thick slice of the electorate that rebels against “political correctness” and relishes saying the “unsayable”. An America that believes in the slogan “America, F*** Yeah!” popularised by the satirical movie Team America, World Police. The more outrageous Trump is, the better. It is a feature, not a bug.

Yet, ironically, the biggest beneficiary of Trump’s “anti-establishment” candidacy is the most establishment candidate in the race: Jeb Bush. In the first place, Trump poses no threat to Bush’s fundraising efforts. Secondly, and more significantly, the crazier and more chaotic the Republican primary becomes, the more probable it is that voters will look fondly upon the candidate best able to present himself as the last remaining adult in the room. That most probably means Jeb. Thirdly, and relatedly, Trump’s rhetoric on subjects such as immigration is so extremist that it makes Bush’s moderate record on the subject seem more palatable than might otherwise be the case. Trump is Jeb’s useful idiot.

In time, the Trump balloon will burst. Nevertheless his mere presence in the GOP field – and his rivals’ disinclination to speak out against him – further tarnishes an already tainted Republican brand. In 2012, Mitt Romney took 59 per cent of the white vote and 88 per cent of Republican voters were white. Thirty years ago that would have been enough to win the presidency. Not any more. In 2016 the electorate will be a little less white than it was in 2012, meaning that unless the Republican party broadens its appeal it will have to do even better amongst white voters than Romney did.

That is not, at least in theory, impossible but it remains unlikely. Thirty years ago the balance of probabilities was that, all things being equal, the Republican party would win more often than not. That is no longer the case. The days when the GOP could rely on white men and win are coming to an end. Donald Trump doesn’t care about this, of course, but his current buoyancy helps demonstrate why, unless it changes, the Republican party is sunk.