GOP’s problem isn’t Donald Trump; it’s the voters
I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction: Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee for president in 2016. The crash-and-burn phase of his embryonic campaign has not yet arrived — but it will.
Yet, more than any of the 17 people seeking to be the next GOP standard bearer, his run already tells us everything we need to know about why the Republican Party is in such desperate trouble.
When Trump dipped his toe in the presidential waters last month, Republican voters had an overwhelmingly negative view of him. He had a 23 percent favorable rating and a 65 percent unfavorablility rating. Among all Americans, the numbers were similarly bad: 13 and 71 percent, respectively.
But six weeks later Trump has turned that frown upside down. According to the latest Washington Post poll, while 61 percent of all Americans continue to see him in negative terms, among Republicans he now has a 57 percent favorability rating versus 40 percent unfavorable.
What changed? Trump launched a full-scale rhetorical assault on illegal immigrants. He described Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. He accused the Mexican government of sending its worst citizens across the border to the United States, and he made xenophobic attacks the centerpiece of his campaign.
This is not new for Trump. Back in 2012, when he first thought about running for office, he accused China of “raping,” “screwing,” and “decimating” the United States and adopted a faux “Asian” accent to bash South Korea. He joined the “birther” movement against President Obama — a position he continues to hold. Although Trump didn’t run that year, he briefly led the GOP field in public opinion polls.
The same thing is happening today. It seems almost impossible to deny the fact that Trump’s attacks on immigrants are part of the reason for his increased popularity among Republican voters. At the least, Trump’s xenophobia is not hurting his popularity.
Not surprisingly, GOP leaders who still hold out quickly vanishing hopes of winning over Hispanic voters claim that he does not speak for the party. According to Jeb Bush, Trump’s “views are way out of the mainstream of what most Republicans think.” Trump is not offering conservatism, says former Texas Governor Rick Perry, but rather “Trump-ism — a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense. And Senator John McCain says Trump has simply “fired up the crazies.”
The problem for the GOP is that the inmates are running the asylum.
Trump might be a deeply clownish figure, immune to facts, evidence, and good taste — but he’s not stupid. He clearly understands, as many members of the Republican Party did before bashing immigrants became a political liability, the way to the heart of a rank-and-file Republican voter.
This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma that risks turning the GOP into a rump political party. Their base of voters is overwhelmingly white and old, cultivated by two generations of Republican officeholders who played on their resentments and fears. Now the GOP is paying the price. Those white voters don’t much like illegal immigrants, don’t look kindly on politicians who want to improve the party’s appeal among Hispanics, and can clearly be reached by a racist demagogue with lots of money and bad hair. The result is turning off not only Hispanic voters, but also tolerant white voters. Republicans always had a tough hill to climb in winning over Hispanics. Trump has made it that much harder, if not impossible in the near-term.
Donald Trump might be dominating the headlines today and causing GOP leaders all kinds of agita. But viewing Trump as the issue misses the point. Republicans don’t have a Trump problem; they have a Republican voter problem.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.