The long knives of conservative punditry have been hard at work lately. Their target: Donald Trump. Yes, the GOP’s leading presidential candidate, the Republicans’ embarrassing gift to political discourse, has scared the establishment enough to start a stampede of angry elephants carrying sharp blades.
Those of us standing elsewhere on the spectrum who are looking at the Trump phenomenon with repressed alarm and heightened amusement need only stay relatively calm as the GOP scrambles to slice away at the Trumpenstein it spawned. It was telling to see the likes of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — he called Trump “a pathological liar” — get under their opponent’s skin in the last week. None of Trump’s GOP rivals has yet to land such an effective blow. Not to say that Trump would much care if the GOP spin-machine scribes turned it up a notch.
Opinionators at The Wall Street Journal seem to have a particular antipathy for The Donald. A headline on a column by Bret Stephens the other day: “Let’s Elect Hillary Now.” Stephens laments that American conservatism was “going the way of the Democratic Party circa 1972.”
Not a single outrageous thing spewing out of the mean man’s mouth has dented his leading-man status. His poll numbers only get stronger. The circus sideshow, the experiment with outsider energy, was supposed to be over by now. The party’s conservative caretakers are having fits that this juggernaut has spun way out of control.
The conventional wisdom sizes up his appeal as a reflection of a base of people whose anxieties and anger — over the system, over the fragile economy, over the incoming hordes — have undermined whatever sense of reason they might possess.
“Now the party of Lincoln,” Stephens writes, “has as its front-runner an insult machine whose political business is to tell Mexicans, Muslims, physically impaired journalists, astute Jewish negotiators and others who cross his sullen gaze that he has no use for them or their political correctness.”
On the same day, in the same, not-so-liberal mainstream newspaper, an op-ed writer recalled the time he was hired to write a campaign bio for Trump’s experimental stab at presidential politics, in 2000. “I have long considered the resulting book my first published work of fiction,” writes Dave Shifflet.
George Will, the historically grounded conservative, joined the chorus last week: “Conservatives’ highest priority now must be to prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination in this the GOP’s third epochal intra-party struggle in 104 years.” (Those prior struggles, Will instructs, involved Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Barry Goldwater, among others.)
Will has had quite enough of Trump’s “comprehensive unpleasantness,” his boasting, his attention-getting posture like a “puppy’s insatiable eagerness to be petted.” But, for Will, the tipping point arrived with Trump’s uber-stupid dalliance with Vladimir Putin.
“Until now,” Will writes, “Trump’s ever-more-exotic effusions have had an almost numbing effect. Almost. But by his embrace of Putin, and by postulating a slanderous moral equivalence — Putin kills journalists, the United States kills terrorists, what’s the big deal, or the difference? — Trump has forced conservatives to recognize their immediate priority.”
The life of the conservative movement is at stake, Will says. Another Democratic victory in 2016, practically a given if Trump makes it all the way to nomination, can only ensure prolonging the misery.
Ted Cruz, the angry Texan, has been riding to the rescue, but he is an unlikable opportunist and hardly the GOP establishment’s idea of a savior. If the party can’t have the under-achieving Jeb Bush, it may well turn to the other Floridian, Marco Rubio. He might have the chops to overcome the Trump damage and stand up respectably to Clinton.
The primary season nears. This game of thrones slogs on. The noise will only get louder. And the blades of Republican anguish will only get sharper.