Trump beats GOP

06-09-2023 01:17 PM
James J. Zogby

In the leadup to the 2024 Republican primary contests, it is clear that the Republican Party no longer exists, either as a body representing, organising and governing its members and candidates, or as a policymaking entity shaping the ideas around which Republicans coalesce.

The Grand Old Party is not the party of former Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, or George HW or even George W. Bush. Those Republican standard-bearers would neither recognise nor find a home in today’s party.

One could just blame Donald Trump for the party’s loss of control over its processes, ideology and even its brand. But while Trump bears some blame for the GOP’s demise, the problems distorting American politics are far more serious. Before taking a deeper dive, let us look at the role Trump is playing in damaging the GOP.

The unfolding of last week’s inaugural Republican primary debate exposed the party’s loss of control. In preparing for that first sanctioned debate, the party laid out its rules for candidates seeking to be included. Prospective participants needed to register at least one per cent in a number of national or state polls and have a specified number of campaign donors (40,000) from at least 20 different states. These rules may seem arbitrary, but are necessary, especially in years with a glut of candidates when the party seeks to winnow down the field to only serious, competitive candidates for the debate stage.

An additional rule put forward by the party, however, shed light on the GOP’s brokenness. To join the debate, qualifying candidates had to pledge that they would endorse the eventual Republican nominee. Unacceptable to Trump, he refused to agree, arguing that being so far up in all national and state polling, he saw no need to provide challengers an opportunity to attack him.

Trump took the same position in 2015, eventually relenting, adding that it was only because he was sure he would be that nominee.

This time, Trump took a different and more defiant tack. He both boycotted the official GOP-sanctioned debate on Fox TV, and set up his own counter-programme, an interview with recently fired Fox TV host Tucker Carlson, to air on social media at the same time.

Direct comparisons between social media views and television ratings are difficult, but the Fox GOP debate had 11.8 million viewers, one-half of the audience for the first 2016 Republican primary debate. During the same time slot, the Trump-Carlson interview received 73 million views. Although it is uncertain how many views were for more than a few seconds, Trump clearly got the best of the party, which was unable to govern candidate behaviour.

Though not on stage and rarely mentioned by name, Trump loomed large. One political observer likened the eight candidates to “the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner”. Another compared Trump’s absent/presence to Harry Potter’s arch-nemesis, Voldemort, always there and such a threat that his name could not be uttered.

When two brave candidates, both accomplished governors, dared to condemn Trump’s actions on January 6, 2021, the audience loudly booed.

Many Republican Party leaders do not want Trump as their nominee (and did not want him in 2016). His radical populism violates Conservative principles. His divisive and sometimes violent rhetoric is concerning. And that he may spend much of the next year in court facing multiple indictments is worrisome. In addition, Trump will not play by the rules of the party. Yet there is nothing they can do.

Polls show that a majority of Republicans continue to support Trump. They will not only vote for him, but also still cling to his many fictions: from “birtherism” claiming Obama was not born in the US and was a Muslim to contentions that the 2020 election was stolen, Joe Biden is not a legitimate president, and January 6th was a peaceful protest. A recent poll of Trump voters shows that 71 per cent believe him, more than believe their family, other political leaders and news media.

Party leaders may not want him, but there is little they can do without alienating a significant portion of their voters. The party cannot control Trump or his voters. And with so many alternative social media platforms, Trump can have greater reach than the party or its once media ally, Fox News.

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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