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Teflon Trump’s The One

He has smashed the brittle bones of GOP orthodoxy. He might be a bad man, but he has done a good thing

Did you watch the GOP debate last night? I did, and there were distressingly few instances of penis-comparing or other tabloid moments. It was actually a sober exchange. It may well have been Marco Rubio’s best debate ever. He will probably make a good president one day, but not this time. If that Rubio had been present at the New Hampshire debate instead of Robo-Rubio, we would probably be looking at a different scenario now. If, if, if. Ted Cruz was composed and articulate, but, as my boss tweeted last night:

Yes. Listening to Ted Cruz last night was like hearing the Ghost of Republicans Past through an ear trumpet. He is yesterday’s candidate.

Kasich was Kasich. People who like Kasich appreciate his non-ideological, commonsense moderation (relative to his opponents), but he’ll come out with things like criticizing the Europeans for not bringing Turkey into the EU, and you’ll do a double take. In any case, we won’t have to worry about him anymore. True, he might win his home state of Ohio — the latest poll has him pulling ahead of Trump — but if he pulls that off, that will be his first and last hoorah.

Trump was weirdly muted last night, and carried himself in a presidential way. He was either tired, or was determined not to let himself be baited, because he is confident he’s got this thing well in hand. This is not to say he was much good. This was the moment last night for me that reinforced my conviction that Trump cannot be trusted, because he will say whatever comes to mind:

GOP frontrunner Donald Trump suggested at Thursday’s CNN Republican presidential debate in Miami that he would be willing to support a massive ground force to take on ISIS.

This is a shift for Trump, who has, as a presidential candidate, often portrayed himself as less hawkish than his Republican opponents.

Trump made the troop comment in response to a moderator’s question as to whether he would follow a military commander’s advice to increase the number of ground troops to fight the terrorist group.

“We really have no choice,” Trump said. “We have to knock out ISIS. We have to knock the hell out of them. We have to get rid of it and then we have to come back here and rebuild our country, which is falling apart.”

Radio host Hugh Hewitt pressed on specific numbers.

“I would listen to the generals,” Trump said, “but I would – I’m hearing numbers of 20 to 30,000. We have to knock them out fast.”

More ground war in the Middle East. How, exactly, is Trump different from his opponents on foreign policy?

Nevertheless, it was hard last night to reach the end of the event without resigning yourself to the likelihood that Trump is going to be the nominee. Was for me, anyway. It was a status quo debate. None of his three opponents really took the fight to Trump. Cruz does seem like the natural alternative to Trump now, but it’s difficult to imagine people who aren’t already the hardest of the hardcore conservative ideologues voting for him with any enthusiasm, other than a desire to stop Trump. I doubt it will be sufficient. But I could be wrong. Everybody has been wrong a lot this crazy election year.

One of the most fascinating dynamics has been Trump’s invincibility, in specific his inability to harm himself. He came across last night as somebody who doesn’t know his material. He often does; he is all about attitude. He flip-flops — on Mideast war, on H1Bs, etc. And yet … it doesn’t matter. I think there is in many Trump voters such a deep and abiding desire to punish the Republican Party that they don’t care. I received a long, thoughtful e-mail yesterday from a lifelong conservative that articulated a lot of what I feel. He asked me not to publish the e-mail, and I’ll honor that. But let me say that he offered a detailed history of what he regards as the long sellout by the Republican Party of social conservatives, in particular on the philosophical issue of defending the common good for all Americans, not just the investors and business leadership class. Whatever his imperfections, Trump is mostly hated by professional Republicans and Democrats because he stands for the idea that US foreign policy, economic policy, and immigration policy ought to be run in the interests of the American people, not some abstract ideal of trade globalism, internationalism, or the interests of multinational corporations and minority-group lobbies.

And I keep hearing from readers — conservative Republicans! — who say that if Trump does nothing else, the fact that he has smashed the Republican Party is an admirable achievement. They’ll get no argument from me on that one, for sure. The panic and misery of Conservatism, Inc., is a pleasure.

It is interesting to contemplate why the GOP apparatus has come to be so hated by so many conservatives. Pete Wehner writes Reaganism’s obituary, in what is one of the first honest reckonings I’ve seen from within GOP elite circles about what has happened, and why. Excerpts:

Trump’s attempt at a hostile takeover is not a thunderclap on a cloudless day. It was years in the making. And when the mantle worn by Reagan might be settling on the likes of Trump, this end-of-an-era moment demands that we reflect on what has happened to our Republican Party.

For those of us open to such self-examination–to understanding what conditions gave rise to Trump and Trumpism–the explanation starts with certain harmful habits. These include employing apocalyptic rhetoric, like the assertion that America is on the verge of becoming Nazi Germany. Such reckless language is evidence of fevered and disordered minds and paves the way for Trump’s incendiary rhetoric.

But that’s hardly the whole of it. Republicans embraced the political knife-fighting tactics of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s and light-as-air political figures like Sarah Palin in the 2000s. Many Republicans–including self-proclaimed “constitutional conservatives”–began to speak of compromise as a synonym for capitulation, which is odd given that the Constitution itself was the result of a whole series of accommodations–and Reagan was a gifted compromiser. (In the debate over the Constitution, there was even a deal struck that came to be known as the Great Compromise, by which every state was to have two members in the U.S. Senate, offsetting proportional representation in the House.) Republicans became suspicious too of the “spirit of moderation” that James Madison argued is essential in understanding which measures are in the public good. What many modern Republicans are looking for is conflict, confrontation, the politics of the cage match.

At some point along the way, it became fashionable in the Republican Party–in some quarters, anyway–to replace reason with rage, to deny science when it was at odds with ideology and to cheer mindless stunts like shutting down the federal government rather than responsibly managing and relimiting it.

Voters are complicit in this too; many of them have come to confuse cruelty, vulgarity and bluster with strength and straight talk. And Republican lawmakers compounded a problem they had promised to solve, promoting rather than ending corporate welfare and crony capitalism.

Wehner goes on to say that the GOP lost touch with ordinary Americans, and had nothing to say to them to help them deal with the huge dislocations caused by the globalization that the Republican Party (and Clinton Democrats, it should be said) embraced and promoted. Read the whole thing. It’s good — as far as it goes.

What’s conspicuously lacking in the piece is the Iraq War. Since Reagan, the GOP has enjoyed the trust of the American people as the party of national security. True, polls today show that the GOP has regained its lead over the Democrats on national security — this, because of immediate fears of Islamic terrorism. Perhaps Republicans don’t think they need to worry about this — and, in the short term (that is, this fall’s election), they’re probably right. Voters have short memories.

It is incredible, though, that to this day, the Republican Party has been unable to have an honest reckoning with the massive failure of its leadership and its worldview regarding the Iraq War. I suppose I am a conservative outlier here, but until the GOP gives a sign of understanding what it got wrong in Iraq, and that it has learned from that catastrophe, I find it impossible to trust Republicans more than Democrats on foreign policy. For all his mistakes and shortcomings on foreign policy, President Obama has kept us out of another land war — one that President McCain or President Romney would have been more likely to bumble into.

After last night’s debate, we have little reason to think that President Trump won’t march us into another war. We know, though, that his opponents are staffed up with the same GOP foreign policy thinkers who got us into Iraq. Trump doesn’t really know who his foreign policy advisers are, and I suppose there’s cause to hope that he will bring some realists onto his team. But you have to be wary.

Still, Newsweek‘s Matthew Cooper is right:

Saying “let’s not panic about Social Security” puts Trump closer to liberal economist Paul Krugman than Ted Cruz.

It’s this kind of busting ideological barriers has made Trump the leader. He’s broken with GOP policies on entitlements, on the individual mandate that was central to Obamacare and on trade. He’s not a liberal or a Democrat but he is charting new waters and given the total ossification of both parties, this kind of glasnost has to be welcomed.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are moving in lockstep to the left and had no place for former Virginia Senator James Webb, who had to drop out of the race. His more conservative positions on coal or his rare anti-Iraq War, anti-Iran deal position helped make him anathema.

Liberals keep saying that if conservatives are worried about the economy and economic fairness under the neoliberal consensus (of which Hillary Clinton is a part), then they ought to be voting for Bernie Sanders. The fact that they aren’t (the argument goes) indicates that they are, deep down, RACISTS. What they refuse to grasp is that there is nothing about Sanders that would restrict immigration or would stand up to political correctness. In fact, Sanders yielded to the Black Lives Matter protesters who seized his microphone in Seattle. He is a symbol of the weakness of liberal authorities in the face of left-wing illiberalism — and for Trump voters, that, rightly so, is a deal-breaker.

So, after last night, I believe that it’s going to be Trump. And remember, the kind of people who say Hillary will beat Trump handily are the kind of people who said for months and months that Trump was a joke candidate who had no chance of winning the GOP nomination.

I recall that after the 2006 election (or perhaps 2008), David Brooks wrote a column in which he predicted that America was in for a period of ideological instability as both parties grappled their way towards a new paradigm to replace the exhausted Reagan-era/Clinton Democrat consensus. Well, it looks like something new is emerging. Moments ago, I was on the phone with a young conservative friend who works in Washington politics, a guy who is appalled by Trump, but who says the best thing about Trump is that finally, someone has torn down the high institutional walls within the GOP that prevented discussion of genuine, substantive conservative reform. The party, he said, resolutely refused to learn from its defeats. Now, reform is being forced on them.

“After this, there’s no going back,” he said.

This is no bad thing. In fact, this is a very good thing. A very good thing. Even if Trump loses the nomination, or loses the fall election, there’s no going back to the stale, rigid Republican orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Again: good.