Donald Trump is great. A sixteenth-century proverb said, “Every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost.” It meant that if you lagged behind everyone else, you would certainly receive no help from anyone. In the field of Republican presidential candidates this year, Republican party leaders and mainstream journalists clearly want the Donald to lag far, far behind. On a bomb throwing battlefield, they wanted to see how soon he would blow himself up.
Four years ago, Republican primary candidates threw around anti-immigrant speech bombs that sounded exactly like the language Trump uses today. They may not have included the red-meat word ‘rapists’ in their anti-immigrant lexicon, but their intent was the same: appeal to Republican voters who think, “We were here first, and we’re not going to tolerate illegals coming in here to take our jobs and our women.”
In the last presidential election, these sentiments – though expressed a little more politely – were uncontroversial among Republicans who wanted to win their party’s nomination. Only Ron Paul stood apart from other Republican candidates on immigration – and many other matters – and we saw what happened to him. The Republican mainstream was strongly, even virulently anti-immigrant. No one tried to convince them to tone it down, and they self-destructed in the general election.
You couldn’t even tell whether anti-immigrant rhetoric last time around was pandering, or a real policy position. You can make yourself believe anything if poll results convince you votes for a certain position are out there. At that point, pandering and policy pronouncements become indistinguishable. Republican candidates in 2011-2012 convinced themselves that the number of votes to be gained with anti-immigrant rhetoric far exceeded the number of votes they would lose to the other party.
Then the numbers come in for Obama’s reelection, and the Republicans realize, “Oh my gosh, we blew it!” The Latino vote for Obama should not have surprised Rebublicans, but it did. They apparently calculated Latinos would simply stay home after all the Republican attacks. Bad calculation. When they compared the anti-immigrant vote on their side to the advantage they handed Democrats on the path-to-citizenship side, they understood they had swamped themselves.
Now follows so-called soul searching. “We need a new strategy,” party leaders said. They spent a lot of time on a major election study that concludes with a real eye-opener: don’t attack Latinos. If you want to be a minority party, then okay, put out a Not Welcome sign to everyone who is not white. If you want to win elections, erect a bigger tent with a rainbow at the door.
Here comes the Donald, four years later, talking the way almost every Republican talked during the primaries four years ago. The anti-immigrant policy has four parts in practice: defend, denounce, detain, and deport. Defend the border, denounce and detain those without documents, and deport those without family or friends. It may sound callous, protesters might say, but it has to be done.
The anti-Donalds, which is the entire Republican field this year, say “Whoa, you can’t talk like that! We all decided that’s not what our party stands for in 2016.” The journalists all say, “Wow, look at the guy with the big hairpiece – the one we don’t like! Get a whiff of the way he talks!” Meantime, the guy with the hairpiece draws big crowds, compiles impressive poll numbers, and doesn’t tone things down one bit. In fact, he turns the volume up. The anti-immigrant activists who want to nominate the next Republican candidate for president are lovin’ it. They don’t care what party strategists discovered about the Latino vote in 2012.
Hillary has taken a clear pro-immigrant stand. Other than her emphatic statement, at a Congressional hearing, that how she handled the Benghazi attacks makes no difference, it’s practically the only clear stand she has taken recently. Republicans could respond to her pro-immigrant position in a couple of ways. They could explain quietly why they disagree. They could say that states in the Southwest, and elsewhere, can and should design their own immigration policies. They could even say they want to think about it some more.
Instead the party watches Donald the Trumpeter strut across the stage with one of those red-and-white, electronic megaphones people like to blast at rally crowds. Establishment types aren’t sure if he’s leading anyone, but their strategy says they have to pounce. They wag their fingers, shake their heads, play to the press, and denounce Trump every way they can. “He’s not one of us!” Show him the exit stage right, and don’t hit me with any tomatoes on the way out.
Then, while Donald still holds the floor, the party’s anti-immigrant forces swing into view. They realize Trump is the sole leader of the Republicans’ nativist wing. He has that pumped up group all to himself, and it’s big! Now they can develop a strategy to divide the party’s non-nativist wing nineteen different ways. Good luck.
You don’t get the feeling that the Donald is a panderer, either. He may be distasteful, but he doesn’t care that much what the mainstream thinks of him. Who would you like to see in 2016, Bush vs. Clinton, or Sanders vs. Trump? Be honest.