Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Cruz and Trump, the GOP's Scylla and Charybdis

Like much of the GOP establishment, the editors of National Review are terrified. The peasants out in the provinces have gotten a mite unruly, it would seem, led astray from their God-anointed leaders by that crass Pied Piper of Populism named Donald Trump. Something must be done.

And so they have done something. Something YYUUUGGE, at least in their minds.

Summoning the conservative intellectual elite to their cause -- men of wisdom and moderation such as Glenn Beck, Erick Erickson and the ever-prescient William Kristol -- they have published an entire special edition devoted solely to exposing Trump's failings, hoping that their dramatic gesture will bring their party to its senses.

And boy, once they pull their switchblades out, they really know how to gut a guy.

Ben Domenech, for example, complains that Trump "advocates ... a rejection of our Madisonian inheritance." Steven Hayward, a Pepperdine professor, informs us that Trump's "facially worthy challenge to political correctness is not a sufficient governing platform." Kristol quotes the Federalist Papers, hoping to inspire “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom.” John Podhoretz rips Trump as "the apotheosis of ... the American id."

I'm sure those "votaries of freedom" in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere will find all of that extremely illuminating and convincing. I can almost feel the momentum begin to shift, can't you?

Meanwhile, however, other segments of the GOP establishment are reaching a very different conclusion. Whatever the failings of The Donald, they are coming to the conclusion that "the American Mussolini," as they call him in National Review, is at least preferable to The Smirk.

As The Washington Post reports:

"The Republican establishment — once seen as the force that would destroy Donald Trump’s outsider candidacy — is now learning to live with it, with some elected and unelected leaders saying they see an upside to Trump as the nominee.

In the past few days, Trump has received unlikely public praise from GOP luminaries who said they would prefer him to his main rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas."

It's quite a dilemma. Unlike the theorists at National Review, these are more practical types with more practical concerns. Yes, they fear Trump, but they despise Cruz. They know for a fact that having Cruz as the party's nominee would be disastrous, while they merely suspect the same might be true of Trump. Trump, unlike the inflexible Cruz, is at least someone they can try to deal with. And if Trump does win, they sure want to be on his side. The sound that you hear is the bandwagon beginning to roll.

At FiveThirtyEight, prognosticator Nate Silver takes note of that phenomenon and believes it to be significant. He has been pretty dismissive of Trump's chances to this point, believing as did many that the GOP establishment would somehow find a way to torpedo his campaign.

However, if the establishment decides that it fears Cruz even more, Silver writes, "I’m now much less skeptical of Trump’s chances of becoming the nominee."

And how have we come to this sad state of affairs, in which GOP leaders find themselves forced to choose between Scylla and Charybdis, between the two candidates they fear and despise the most? I turn now to the man who ought to know, Rush Limbaugh. He too believes that it's foolish to believe that modern American conservatism is built on high-flown talk of Madisonian theory or notions of constitutional purity. No, it's much more basic.

"... the Republican establishment does not understand that what really animates its own base is an opposition to the Democrat Party; what animates and informs its own base is a vehement opposition to liberalism and the American left," Limbaugh explains.  "What motivates us is opposition, strident opposition to the left and the Democrat Party."

That's exactly right. Limbaugh knows it, and Trump and Cruz know it as well. What the base wants -- pretty much all they want -- is strident, vehement opposition to Obama, Hillary, the Democrats and the cultural left. Nothing. Else. Matters. We've seen that in Washington for the last seven years, whenever a Republican even attempted to compromise or negotiate. And we're seeing it now on the campaign trail. Whoever gives voice to that sentiment most effectively, that's who the base will support.

This didn't happen by accident. The party base is that way because that's the way party leaders have constructed it.  They created a movement that is defined solely by what and who it is against, not by what it is for. It was easy, it was simple.

And it was oh so easy to hijack.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.