Donald Trump is the leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, according to a new Washington Post/ABC poll (though the same poll finds evidence that his disparaging remarks about Sen. John McCain’s war record is hurting Trump). Almost no one believes Trump can get the nomination, but over the past few weeks he’s been smothering the other 15 or so Republican candidates, and party leaders fear that his crude attacks on immigrants are causing long-term damage to the GOP brand.
The laws of even-handed political coverage—also known as the principle that both major parties must be equally to blame for any dysfunction in American politics—call for the designation of a Democratic Party equivalent to Trump, a businessman and reality-TV star who has never held elective office. Some have tried to nudge this process along.
In a Wall Street Journal column (“Trump and Sanders, the Disrupter Brothers”), Republican strategist Karl Rove helpfully set an example of pairing any mention of Trump with a dig at Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Both “draw on the populist wings of their parties,” Rove writes, and “could make the path to the White House that much rockier” for the eventual nominees of their respective parties.
Rove describes the Sanders constituency as “angry at Wall Street, infuriated by income inequality, fearful of foreign economic competition and committed to a peace-at-all-costs isolationism that blames America for the world’s ills.” He does not give an example of Sanders himself stoking anger and fury. Rove may not have been able to find a Sanders quote as bombastic as Trump’s remarks on immigration. (“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”)
Jeb Bush, the once and future front-runner for the GOP nomination, has a different candidate for the Democratic counterpart to Trump. “We need to focus on the things that tie us together, and whether it’s Donald Trump or Barack Obama, their rhetoric of divisiveness is wrong,” Bush says in a campaign video. Trump must be pleased that Bush equates him to the president of the United States, no matter what the context.
But it’s not clear what exactly Bush is referring to. Over the course of his presidency, Obama has more than once enraged some conservatives by talking about racism in America. For example, in 2012, when Obama observed that if he had a son, he might look like Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, Newt Gingrich called the comment “disgraceful,” and past/current GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum said the president was “trying to drive a wedge in America.” More recently, Obama has discussed the persistent effects of racism as a factor in mass incarceration, telling the NAACP in a Philadelphia speech that our criminal-justice system “remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth.” (The reaction of one conservative website: “Disgusting. Obama bashed America again today, this time during his address to the NAACP Convention in Philadelphia.”) Are Obama’s statements on race “divisive,” and are they comparable to Trump’s remarks on immigrants? Is Obama’s call for criminal-justice reform as demagogic as Trump’s unrealistic vow to build an impenetrable wall along the U.S.-Mexico border?
It seems unlikely that any Democrat will match Trump in one respect, and that is criticism from fellow party members. Trump’s tactless comments about McCain (“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”) have given Republicans the chance to denounce him without getting into policy differences. Almost all of the other major Republican candidates have done so—with Sen. Marco Rubio’s tweet about Trump’s “offensive rantings,” seeming rather poignant, given that Rubio may have suffered the most from Trump’s domination of campaign news. It’s hard to imagine any such pile-on among Democrats (even Sanders, who has never officially run as a Democrat in Vermont, has avoided personal attacks on Clinton and his other rivals).
Another peculiarly Republican development: talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh has come to Trump’s defense. “Trump is not following the rules that targets are supposed to follow. Targets are supposed to immediately grovel, apologize,” Limbaugh told his listeners on Monday, predicting a backlash to negative media coverage of the candidate. “The American people…have not seen an embattled public figure stand up for himself, double down and tell everybody to go to hell.”
Not only Trump, but several other firebrand Republican candidates (notably Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and the increasingly desperate Bobby Jindal) are hoping to bypass mainstream media and reach conservative activists through talk radio, Fox News and websites like Townhall—where they might later find jobs, or readers for the books they write after failing to reach the White House. As New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman writes, “the GOP is at risk of becoming less of a political party and more like a talent agency for the conservative media industry. Jumping into the race provides a (pseudo)candidate with a national platform to profit from becoming a political celebrity.”
Viewing the Republican presidential primaries as star maker machinery explains why there are so many candidates with no plausible chance of winning. (Trump, businesswomen Carly Fiorina, and surgeon Ben Carson are trying to be the first major-party nominee since Dwight Eisenhower with no experience in elective office.) It also explains why most of the candidates take positions that are so unpopular outside of the Republican primary electorate—including opposition to same-sex marriage, a raise in the minimum wage, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and any plan to deal with the effects of global warming. Electability is not really the point for most of the Republican candidates; they are more dedicated to the principles of niche marketing.
This is not the case on the Democratic side. Long-shot candidates Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee, both former governors who have run dull campaigns, are not going to become MSNBC stars even if that low-rated network survives as a Democratic alternative to Fox News.