How worried should Republicans—and everyone else—be about Donald Trump, the man who’s turning the party’s presidential contest into a circus rodeo? Not very. What his popularity blip reveals is just how weak the right has become.
Herman Cain was polling as high as 26 percent between October and November 2011. Trump has a long way to go to match last cycle’s comic-relief candidate. The occasionally bankrupt billionaire’s best number so far has been 17 percent. His polling average, even after weeks of hype, is about 10 percent. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has been routinely polling around 15 percent against Hillary Clinton. Sanders is a more popular figure than Donald Trump, but he obviously isn’t as good for television ratings—he’s never had his own reality program—so Ten-Percent Trump is the guy who’s treated as a threat to America’s political establishment.
How many of the Trump ten percent are actually, in any serious way, Donald Trump voters? Maybe half. Trump’s strength is less a sign that his demagoguery is catching on than that Republican voters haven’t been sold on any of the more sober alternatives to Jeb Bush. Trump is filling the generic anti-Bush, anti-establishment slot in the race. Whoever filled that slot would be getting double-digit support, and chances are any other candidate who had successfully secured this role would be polling higher than Trump is now. What the Trump phenomenon shows is not that the GOP is tilting in a radical direction but the opposite. Walker, Paul, Rubio, Cruz, and the rest aren’t appealing to the most excitable people in the party. That’s a sign that the GOP’s aspiring leadership is ultimately rather anodyne.
Trump has obvious advantages over the others in staking his claim to be the anti-Bush. Everyone knows his name, and he’s willing to speak vehemently about immigration, an issue on which Bush is vulnerable. But it’s doubtful that the hardline anti-immigration vote has boomed from the 2 percent support earned by Tom Tancredo in 2008 to something on the verge of taking over the party. And it’s most likely that Trump’s effect on the GOP’s immigration policies will be the opposite of what his supporters want: to undo the damage Trump is inflicting on the party’s Hispanic outreach efforts, the party leadership will further marginalize immigration restrictionists. Fringe candidates like Trump usually don’t succeed in prompting others to raise up their banner: Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign certainly did no wonders for opposition to trade deals, support for which has since become an article of faith for Republican and Democratic presidents alike.
Any other candidate who now tries to take on immigration will be tarred by association with Trump. And no other candidate is going to have the flamboyant appeal he has, so it looks as if anyone else who campaigns on this will reap few of the rewards Trump has reaped but draw all of the obloquy Trump has called forth. That’s even more of a losing proposition than Trump’s own bid.
The other candidates know this. They’re not worried about their standing in the polls in summer 2015, they’re worried about their cash flow and ad buys for Iowa and New Hampshire. Every indication so far is that Jeb Bush will annihilate his competition: his fundraising take is beyond anything his rivals can hope to match—even the next two combined—and the heir apparent has led almost every GOP poll since he first indicated he would run.
If the right could unite behind a single alternative, he might have a chance. The anti-Bush would be several things: in style, combative rather than mild; in ideology, hard right rather than pragmatic; on immigration, against it rather than for it. Immigration is the hot-button issue where Bush is most at variance with the party’s right wing, so it’s an effective wedge against him. But it’s not one other candidates are well-positioned to exploit. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have both, like Bush, made efforts to present themselves as kinder, gentler Republicans. (Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.)
Walker has been more outspoken on immigration, but he seems reluctant to cast himself as a hard-right candidate—he’s benefited from an ambiguous identity as both a hero to the right and someone who has yet to alarm centrists. Ted Cruz might be demagogic enough to aspire to be the next Donald Trump, but in taking up immigration he’s inconvenienced by the fact that he’s Canadian-born and was until very recently a subject of Her Majesty Elizabeth II.
Trump’s bubble tells us little about the 2016 race. What it says about Republican ideology, on the other hand, is that none of the factions—the libertarians, the religious right, the Tea Party—have much life in them. After all the sound and fury of the Obama years, no quarter of the right has generated ideas or leaders that compellingly appeal even to other Republicans, let alone to anyone outside the party. The Ron Paul revolution has become a Rand Paul Thermidor. There is no philosophical insurgency this year. Instead, there’s a sense that the right is becoming a prisoner to formalism: the religious right, the libertarians, and the Tea Party are all reduced to repurposing ideas minted decades ago. The various factions’ policies aren’t generating any excitement, which leaves room for an outsize, outrageous personality, in this case Trump, to grab attention.
The field’s failure here isn’t about satisfying an appetite for novelty, it’s about the failure of new circumstances to generate fresh applications of principle from the leading figures of the different factions. From Rand Paul we should be hearing something we didn’t hear much from his father, namely how libertarianism and noninterventionism can be made politically viable—especially in the hard cases, not just the relatively popular and easy ones like surveillance reform. From Huckabee and Santorum and Carson we should be hearing about what it means to be a moral minority in a country that has already accepted same-sex marriage; they could even be talking about the Benedict Option and whether the religious right’s mode of political engagement remains an alternative to it. (Judging by the GOP race itself, Obergefell doesn’t seem to be lighting any populist fires.)
There are difficult questions today that Ronald Reagan and the Cold War right never had to address. But they aren’t questions that the factional candidates or their ideological proxies are answering. None of them represents a 21st-century conservatism. Nor, of course, does Donald Trump.