World·Analysis

Donald Trump vs. the Republican establishment. Not a fair fight

In his improbable bid for the Republican presidential nomination, billionaire Donald Trump has insulted virtually everyone else in the field while they have begun shooting back in kind. It seems to have only helped his popularity, Neil Macdonald writes.

A 'cancer on conservatism'? Well, at least a problem for mainstream Republicans

Just a bit in-your-face, Donald Trump makes his way through the crowd after addressing a Tea Party rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington last week. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

The paternal, indulgent smile usually worn by the barbered and tanned Republican establishment is gone.

In its place is whey-faced fear. The primary-season freakshow that once served the party's interests so nicely now threatens to consume it.

Mainstream Republicans (admittedly a relative term nowadays) have lost control to a reality show star, a vulgar braggart who somehow manages to evince populism while flaunting extreme wealth and his membership in the .0001 per cent club.

Donald Trump transcends the freakshow, he's the whole carnival in one man, and taking the car keys away from him isn't going to be easy, if it can be done at all.

It wasn't supposed to work this way. The freakshow is meant to entertain and pacify the Don't-Tread-On-Me Tea Party bunch during the endless American primary season.

The idea is to promise unattainable far-right goals until the actual campaign starts, when the adults step in and make the compromises inevitably necessary to attain national power.

In 2012, each freakshow star had his or her moment in the polls before flaming out: Michele Bachmann, the creationist who thinks God punishes gays; Herman Cain, the pizza tycoon with the fedora and the, allegedly, roaming hands; Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker turned hired gun of a one-agenda Las Vegas casino king; Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and conservative Christian who jogs with a gun; and Rick Santorum, the ultra-religious climate change denier who compared gay marriage to bestiality and called Mitt Romney's Mormon faith a "dangerous cult."

Then Romney, who'd lagged for months, won the nomination.

This time it's different.

Like the Golem of Chelm, the animated clay creature in Jewish folklore that grew uncontrollable and threatened the entire universe, Trump seems to gather power with every TV appearance and every crackpot speech.

And like the Golem, he now threatens to crush his creator if any attempt is made to remove the magic, animating letters from his forehead.

In the Golem's case, it was a holy name; in Trump's, it's a white baseball cap proclaiming "Make America Great Again."

Parade of insults

Trump is a "cancer on conservatism," croaked Perry, who made a second run at the nomination before collapsing in surrender last week.

Supporters photograph themselves ahead of a press conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan where the candidate signed a pledge not to run as an independent if he loses the Republican nomination. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

"We can make America great again," complained another hopeful, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. "But we will not do that by putting an unserious and unstable narcissist in the White House."

"Someone has to bring him down," gasped Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, himself a Tea Party hero until not too long ago, but now utterly eclipsed. "I'm not going to sit quietly by and let the disaster that is Donald Trump become the nominee."

But there seems to be nothing that Paul, or anyone else, can do. Trump feeds on name-calling like Dr. Doom in Marvel comics feeds on electricity. It makes him stronger.

Rand Paul, says Trump, "reminds me of a spoiled brat without a functioning brain."

Rick Perry "should be forced to take an IQ test."

Senator Lindsey Graham, another candidate for the GOP nomination, is a "stiff," a "loser" and "not as bright as Rick Perry."

Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and an establishment favorite, is "weak" and "terrible."

Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO, is physically unattractive: "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?" (Combed-over and running to fat, Trump truly has no sense of irony.)

His closest rival, Ben Carson, is "an OK doctor," but not as religious as he claims, and maybe not even very smart. (Carson is a famed neurosurgeon who once separated twins conjoined at the head.)

And on, and on.

Former Republican nominee John McCain (who supercharged the freakshow in 2008 by choosing Sarah Palin to share his ticket) is not really a war hero, just because he was captured and tortured by the Vietnamese: "I like people who don't get captured," said Trump.

Fox News' conservative queen, Megyn Kelly, who called Trump out for labeling some women "pigs, dogs, slobs and animals," was probably menstruating – "bleeding from her wherever," he said after the first candidates' debate, which Kelly hosted.

The face of the party

There is no sensible or dignified reply to any of this drivel, of course, which is why it works. The party base loves blunt, manly talk and it has wrapped Trump in a loving hug.

Not today's man. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush would appear to be the establishment choice, but he is nowhere near being the front-runner. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

The fact that he used to speak admiringly about universal health care, was once pro-choice on abortion, took a progressive view of gays in the military, supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants (of course he did; he employs thousands of them) and wanted a ban on assault rifles, is forgotten and forgiven.

Now, he calls Latino migrants criminals and rapists (in the process alienating the single fastest-growing demographic in America), dismisses global warming as a "total hoax" and seems to want to conquer the world with the U.S. military.

Instead of fizzling, as he was supposed to, Trump is now by far the most popular figure in his own party. Jeb Bush is practically an also-ran at this point, having fallen back into the single digits.

But polling also suggests that while six in 10 Republicans think Trump is ready and qualified to be president, six in 10 Americans don't.

Hillary Clinton, despite voter weariness and her persistent email scandal, still retains the adult vote.

Meaning Trump is more a Republican problem than a Republican champion. Even as he becomes ever more the face of the party.

But if he is nominated, at least the so-called base will have the satisfaction of testing its most cherished belief: that a "real conservative," if nominated, will crush opponents in a way that the serial compromisers of the past could never have dreamed.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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