Donald Trump—with his swashbuckling, profanity-laced bigotry and searing, rapid-fire assaults against his opponents—is poised to either upend modern-day conservatism or reveal the true nature of its ideological roots. For now, it appears, his most serious remaining challengers—Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—possess neither the gravitas nor the electoral might to save the GOP from the darkest impulses of its base.
Notwithstanding their fervent attempts to distance themselves from the billionaire businessman, Trump’s brand of conservatism is a creature of their own making. Until now, as long as the monster could be controlled, it found safe harbor in their midst. It has proven difficult to walk away from Trump wholesale or even authentically criticize him when they themselves have peddled a more digestible, coded form of the same cultural biases.
Trump, however, has now given voice to an ideological strain of extremism that is imbued with an ugly nativist theology and racial animus. Once secreted away in the shadows, where questions of its existence and influence over the party’s platform could be batted away or outright denied, the roots of economic loathing and racial resentment have been unearthed and paraded under cable news studio Klieg lights.
Some of the same party establishment players who chafe at Trump’s prominence now once delighted in the bully’s capacity to fell his foes. One after another, they trekked to his gilded Manhattan office tower to curry the favor of an unrepentant birther. In their lust to reclaim the White House, they relished the fruits of his largesse—pocketing thousands in campaign donations—despite Trump’s extensively documented track record that included allegations of housing discrimination, corporate bankruptcies that crushed small-business owners and their families, and tales of marital infidelity worthy of an E. L. James trilogy.
But, then the tables turned. Trump, the archetypical ruffian, grew dissatisfied with the size of his political kingdom and proffered himself for the grandest prize of them all—the American presidency.
In doing so, Trump, the celebrity wrecking ball who eschews the confines of conservative principles, has built an intractable movement fueled largely by a wave of white male resentment. It is the same tide, advanced by gerrymandering and funded by billionaire kingmakers, that swept through state legislatures—especially in the South—and delivered congressional control to Republicans. It was in that climate, one seeded and nurtured by conservatives, that the Trump candidacy found fertile ground.
“Conservatism has never been about anger,” Rubio told a crowd gathered at CPAC Saturday.
In fact, conservatism—from William F. Buckley to George Wallace, from Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich—has always been about the politics of resentment. Rubio’s flowing rhetoric is soundly disproven, both by contemporary evidence and the history of conservatism in the U.S. Party re-alignments that came after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation proclamation and Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Acts demonstrated the willingness of conservatives to switch parties when one or the other proved too liberal for their collective tastes. Because of this, the GOP has not always been the “party of white men.” But conservatism has always been driven by a desire to maintain their political and economic power—and their anger at the possibility of losing it.
And there has always been a chest-thumping, populist ringleader willing to take up that charge.
Early on, Trump validated the most deeply held anxieties of his supporters with coarse language aimed at the marginalized and disenfranchised. He, his base said, was just “telling it like it is.” Only Trump, they believe, can protect them from the boogeyman of their shrinking majority.
Trump’s popularity is buoyed by his ability to channel and manifest the anger of those who believe they are losing power as the country—and the electorate—grows more diverse. For them, the casino magnate is the perfect antidote— the proverbial captain at the blockade—who represents their best and last hope to maintain an economic system built on racial privilege.
No one—least of all Mitt Romney—cared about Trump’s volatile temperament, his string of failed businesses or his proclivity toward xenophobia and chauvinism while he was helping them carry the water. Ironically, for Trump, the measure of leadership is counted in the number of people who fit tidily under his diminutive thumbs—people like Romney, whom Trump alleges was once so desperate for his endorsement that he would have “dropped to his knees.”
That he would utter something so foul, so devoid of basic decorum, should have come as no surprise. According to researchers, studies of teens with history of aggressive bullying behavior suggest that they derive pleasure from seeing others in pain, and there is no question that Trump enjoys pummeling anyone who utters an unkind word about him. His goal has always been to strike enough fear to silence or discredit his naysayers.
“We find that bullies have a strong need to control others,” John Lochman, a psychologist at Duke University Medical School, told The New York Times. “Their need to be dominant masks an underlying fear that they are not in control, and they mask the sense of inadequacy by being a bully.”
“Bullies see the world with a paranoid's eye,” added Kenneth Dodge, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University. “They feel justified in retaliating for what are actually imaginary harms.”
Like any self-respecting schoolyard bully, Trump is unapologetic, seemingly emboldened by the cheering crowds and rising poll numbers. In turn, his swell of supporters continues filling hotel ballrooms and bingo halls—cheering his unchecked bravado, erupting loudly as he unleashes round after round of bombasts. They rejoice in his ability to degrade and dominate, proudly shoving and heckling dissenting protestors. Young activists for Black Lives Matter have drawn Trump’s specific ire and his supporters make no secret of their disdain.
“Their thuggish and uncivilized actions are going to be met with a response these people understand,” one Trump supporter posted on Facebook.
Trump, who has promised to pay the legal fees of anyone who assaults a demonstrator, has faced no backlash on this issue from his opponents. That silence is tacit approval and now, it appears, nothing stands between Trump and the GOP nomination.
“There’s nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren—there is nothing and nobody that’s going to dissuade me from voting for Trump,” 71-year-old Lola Butler told a New York Times reporter.
But will it be enough? Can Trump ultimately win the keys to the Oval Office?
“I haven’t even started on her yet,” he says of Hillary Clinton.
However, “the math suggests Trump would need a whopping 70 percent of white men to vote for him,” writes David Bernstein for Politico Magazine. “That’s more than Republicans have ever won before—more than the GOP won in the landslide victories of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and far more than they won even during the racially polarized elections of Barack Obama.”
But that the GOP cannot find a single candidate who can fell this tailor suited-hooligan once and for all, speaks volumes about the party itself. Over time, Trump has vilified undocumented immigrants, suggested a travel ban on all Muslims and even demanded that the nation’s first black president produce his birth certificate and college transcripts—to prove he was born here and had duly earned his laudable achievements. He has openly mocked a reporter living with disabilities and regularly disparaged the journalists who cover his campaign events. Cameras have captured him jeering and sneering at protestors from behind the microphone.
“Get out! Get ’em out!” he shouts.
For his part, Rubio claims Trump is attempting to “hijack” the conservative movement. The truth is the real-estate titan is simply taking the wheel of a car that was custom-built for him.
There is no evidence that a kinder gentler Trump will voluntarily emerge, nor is there—at this point—any incentive for him to rehabilitate his public personae. Once a bully has established his superiority, he tends to escalate the “violence” in order to maintain that reputation. He knows that when the fear is gone, power walks out behind it.
A bully like Trump will continue to wreak havoc on the meek, fueled by his escalating hegemony, until he is felled either by humiliation or brute force (in this case, a brokered convention). Or, as my late Uncle Ross used to say, “They won’t stop until you knock ’em on their ass.”