The Republican presidential race might have reached a tipping point. Up until now, the GOP establishment has been primarily ignoring Donald Trump – hoping he will go away – or occasionally taking pot shots at him. To their dismay, these shots have completely (and unsurprisingly) backfired, mainly because the environment of anger, racism, and incivility that feeds Trump’s popularity was largely created by the Republican establishment themselves (with the limitless help of Fox News).
But suddenly, the GOP establishment seems to be embracing Trump and even promoting him! What could make Trump so abruptly appealing? After all, Trump is still Trump (and might even be getting worse). How did this happen?
Two things. First, the Republicans have run out of establishment alternatives to Trump. After Jeb Bush bit the dust, their last hope was Marco Rubio, but they have come to the realization that Rubio doesn’t have the cajones to stop Trump. Instead, the race has already narrowed to two people. Secondly, and most important, as the Huffington Post puts it, “The GOP Establishment Has Found The One Thing That Can Make Donald Trump Palatable: Ted Cruz“.
Cruz has already done tremendous damage to the Republican party, including forcing a costly and unpopular government shutdown and pissing off almost everyone in Washington. His support is limited to the most hard-core right-wing evangelicals, and he doesn’t even try to appeal to other Republicans, let alone the independents who typically decide presidential elections. In fact, he delights in attacking everyone, wearing their hatred of him as a badge of honor. And on top of all that, Cruz isn’t even a very good evangelical.
Plus there is the question of whether Cruz is even eligible to be president.
The GOP establishment has come the realization that Cruz could be the bomb (or perhaps straw) that destroys the Republican party. As Bob Dole put it on Wednesday, it would be “cataclysmic” if Cruz wins the primary. “If he’s the nominee, we’re going to have wholesale losses in Congress and state offices and governors and legislatures.”
The same day, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott said that he would prefer Trump over Cruz. The day before that, the governor of the all-important state of Iowa, Terry Branstad (the longest serving governor in the country), broke his neutrality to encourage Republican caucus goers to vote against Cruz. And then, out of the blue, Sarah Palin endorsed Trump.
Ted Cruz represents an existential threat. While Trump – despite the fact that he is racist, sexist, even fascist – is all bluster. Perhaps the GOP is hoping that the voters won’t take him seriously.
Indeed, so what if Trump loses to Clinton? As one anonymous GOP establishment figure put it, “I’m rooting for Hillary. She can’t win a mandate, so we hold the House and don’t get slaughtered in the Senate. We will have a great midterm in 2018 running against her. We are a great opposition party.” They figure that they can distance themselves from Trump more easily, limiting the collateral damage.
As another anonymous GOP activist put it, there is a “feeling that with Trump, it’s easier for House and Senate candidates to separate themselves from the top of the ticket versus a fellow senator and particularly one who is running a hard-right campaign with no apparent desire to do outreach to independents and minorities.”
And that is how Donald Trump became the darling of the Republican establishment overnight.