“By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes” – W. Shakespeare, Macbeth
I can’t remember the last time I got excited about watching a Republican primary debate. Oh wait, it was…never. But this week’s Fox News debate was must-see TV for political junkies and, it seems, for the casual observer as well. Donald Trump has injected some hysteria into this soul-sucking process. He offers no specifics for how he will “Make America Great Again” (as his campaign slogan promises). When asked about the economy, the business mogul who has declared bankruptcy several times answers, “I’m really rich.” When asked how he will fix immigration, he says he will build a wall along the Mexican border with a “beautiful door” for legal immigrants, and I don’t know, spider monkeys to chase away the illegal ones? When asked about jobs, he says he will drag all the jobs back from China – but some of those workers make Trump’s own products. He is a traffic accident, and we can’t look away.
Trump certainly strikes a nerve. For two-thirds of the country, he is an ogre. He’s rude, supercilious, uninformed, and just, well, un-presidential. In Thursday’s debate, he roundly dismissed one of the moderators, Megyn Kelly, and suggested via some “angry tweets” after the debate that her tough questioning of him might be related to her menstrual cycle. Yikes.
He claims to love the military, but he said that Senator John McCain, a Navy veteran who was shot down over Hanoi during the Vietnam War and held captive at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for over two years is not a hero. Trump says McCain is not a hero because he let himself get caught and Trump thinks heroes don’t let themselves get captured. Military friendly? Yeah, I don’t know about that.
During the debate itself and throughout his campaign, Trump has been hostile to the other candidates, calling them “Losers” and mocking them. Trump most famously claimed that all Mexican immigrants are murderers, drug dealers, and rapists. For a party that has had trouble convincing the country that it is a party of inclusion, Trump is a nightmare.
And yet, Trump is leading the polls for his party’s nomination. Just let that marinate for a second. For the nomination of one of the country’s two major political parties, Donald Trump is the leading candidate.
Nate Silver, the brilliant New York Times columnist and political prognosticator, believes that Trump will eventually flame out. But in the meantime, it’s worth asking why his flame is burning this brightly. One of the reasons, I think, is something Trump himself mentioned in the debate: political correctness. Trump is unapologetically not PC, and the Republican base loves him for it. Trump represents the ethos of the “angry white man” – the lower middle-class, limited information voter that believes others are to blame for their own struggles and romanticizes a past when America was greater than it is now. Trump is the mouthpiece for this, and it’s playing pretty well.
Unfortunately, Trump is drowning out more moderate voices in the crowded candidate field. It was not an electric moment, but Ohio Governor John Kasich had a very good moment answering a question about gay rights in which he sounded authentic, compassionate, and logical. But no one is talking about Kasich, a dark horse and late entry into this race who nevertheless managed to make the cut for the 10-candidate main event debate. Another Republican candidate who did not make the prime time debate, Senator Lindsey Graham, delivered a solid performance in the so-called “Happy Hour Debate” that occurred before. In particular, when talking about Social Security, Graham was empathetic and rational, acknowledging the need to get out of the entrenchment of party ideology to move toward a solution to save the critical entitlement program. Candidates like these who display authenticity as well as compassion and good will, are what the Republican party really needs. Maybe not these guys exactly, but a version of them.
This is a critical moment for the GOP. As a liberal-minded progressive voter who has voted for the Democratic nominee in 5 of 6 elections since I became eligible to vote, there is a part of me that wants Trump to win the nomination because, first and foremost, he won’t win the general election. No independent voter will choose Trump no matter who he’s running against. But I also think that, if nothing else, his candidacy might finally force a sea change within the Republican party. I know some Republicans who are socially progressive but fiscally conservative. There is a middle ground where outliers of both major parties sit. In truth, I think this is where much of the Republican party is. But the base of the party controls the primary cycle, so it’s hard to gain the nomination without pandering to the social issues and anti-everything rhetoric that are dominated by the party’s extremists. If the GOP isn’t careful, they will get Trumped! in this election – and the party as we know it now may never recover.
© 2015 Ryna May