Could the Republican Party have stopped Donald Trump?
The theory goes like this: The Republican Party had the chance to off Trump early, but it didn't act quickly enough — and now it may be too late. If only officials had coalesced around Marco Rubio earlier, if only the Super PACs concentrated their fire on Donald Trump faster, if only Jeb Bush had dropped out before South Carolina, if only...
As Trump's insurgency continues to overwhelm the party, the recriminations are growing more scathing. Political scientist Dan Drezner suggests Republicans might have thought it so obvious Trump would lose that they didn't think they had to do anything. "Just how much of Trump’s rise came about because the people who could have stopped him read analyses asserting that he had no chance of winning?" Drezner asks.
But the Republican Party did try to stop Trump. It just failed. And until the nature of that failure is appreciated, the strength of Trump's candidacy is going to be underestimated.
The Republican assault on Donald Trump was vast
The GOP didn't, in political science parlance, "decide" on a single champion — no one candidate received the bulk of official endorsements before Iowa. But parties do more than decide; they also veto. And the Republican Party did try to veto Trump — as did everyone else. Trump has come under a coordinated assault from the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the media that is unlike anything in my lifetime.
The first Republican debate featured Fox News — arguably the single most powerful actor in the modern Republican Party — trying to cut Trump's candidacy to shreds. The harsh questioning, which touched on everything from his past heterodoxies to his friendship with Hillary Clinton to his misogyny, kicked off a feud between Fox News and Trump that continues to this day.
The National Review, which acts as the official magazine of American conservatism, pulled contributors from every wing of the movement to write a Stop Trump issue. The festival of contributions — which included everyone from Glenn Beck to Erick Erickson to Bill Kristol — were clustered under the headline "Conservatives Against Trump." The magazine's own editorial was titled "Against Trump," and it began by calling Trump "a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones."
And there have been plenty of smaller skirmishes. Remember McCain-gate, when the Republican Party tried to use its base's veneration of military heroes to destroy Trump?
This is how parties veto. They send signals. They mobilize their influencers. They use the media. They make sure the party faithful know that this isn't our kind of guy, he doesn't believe what we believe, he isn't the kind of person we support.
Republicans know all that. They've heard their party. They've heard everyone else, too — the condemnations of Trump have been a nonstop clamor, a roar that's drowned out all other political coverage. But Republican primary voters just don't give a shit. It's worse than that — they like that Trump pisses off the establishment. The backlash only makes him stronger.
The realities of an anti-establishment wave
Everyone says this is an anti-establishment year, but elites are just mouthing the words; they still don't quite believe it. They still think that if only the Republican establishment had been a bit better organized, a bit quicker on the draw, they could have kept control. The truth is probably closer to the opposite.
What would've happened if the party had somehow muscled out Chris Christie and Jeb Bush and John Kasich before New Hampshire — a level of coordination and control unheard of in modern politics — and circled the wagons around Rubio? Would it have helped him or hurt him to look so much like the choice of the establishment?
Guy in line told me he watched the news last night and saw the endorsements for Rubio/mainstream media pushing him. So won't vote for him.— David Catanese (@davecatanese) February 24, 2016
"You can consolidate all day long around whoever," Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, told me, "but if the people perceive that candidate to be establishment or establishment-lite, they ain’t going to go that way."
The Republican Party is broken
The hope now is that Trump is at his ceiling and his continued dominance simply speaks to the fracturing of the field. Some polls show Rubio beating Trump in a head-to-head matchup, though others show him losing.
This is the best argument for how the Republican Party could help Rubio — it could somehow force all the other candidates from the race. But would that help Rubio? Or would it anger Republican voters and help Trump, or perhaps even anger some of the spurned candidates and lead to them endorsing Trump?
The party doesn't have any magic powers. All it has is its credibility with its voters. Because, in the end, parties can only influence — it's voters who actually decide. And the Republican Party has, for whatever reason, lost its ability to influence its voters. Donald Trump is winning this thing, and so far, Ted Cruz, the only guy elite Republicans hate more than Trump, is vying for second place.
Parties are vehicles for structuring information. Their role is literally to help voters decide by helping them choose whom to trust. The fact that Republican voters seem to prefer candidates whom their party is screaming not to trust reveals a profound failure in the GOP's core role. The Republican Party is broken.