Republicans and the media greet ‘the new normal’

There he is again. Photo (cc) 2015 by Matt Johnson.

There he is again. Photo (cc) 2015 by Matt Johnson.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Now that only the most literal-minded (or John Kasich) would call Donald Trump anything other than the presumptive nominee, the media are ready to turn to the next storyline in this bizarre, disturbingly dark campaign. Based on the morning-after chatter, the big question that’s emerging is whether Republicans will fall in line behind the demagogue or if, instead, the party will fracture.

In a Twitter back-and-forth that National Journal’s Ron Brownstein called “the GOP debate after the #IndianaPrimary in a single exchange,” former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer wrote:

 The way forward for anti-Trump Republicans is unclear. As Sean Sullivan and Katie Zezima report in the Washington Post, Republicans who would like to run a third-party candidate against the nominee of their own party face significant logistical and psychological hurdles—although, elsewhere in the Post, former Bush I and Bush II official Eliot Cohen argues for exactly that, calling Trump “utterly unfit for the position by temperament, values and policy preferences.”

But since a high-profile third-party effort would only strengthen Hillary Clinton’s already strong hand against Trump (never mind her weaknesses as a candidate, underscored by her loss to Bernie Sanders in Indiana), why shouldn’t anti-Trump Republicans simply endorse Clinton? That’s the route Michael Barbaro explores in the New York Times, noting that John McCain strategist Mark Salter and RedState.com contributor Ben Howe have said they’ll support her.

Of course, we’re a long way from knowing whether any of these gasps of pain will translate into something more substantive. Liberal editorial pages such as those of the Times, the Post, and the Boston Globe have all lamented the Republican Party’s descent into Trumpism. But the Wall Street Journal, to which actual Republicans pay attention, offers only a mildly worded rebuke to Trump, instructing him “that the responsibility for unification is now his,” and leaving little doubt that the Journal is prepared to live with him as the party’s standard-bearer.

Frankly, the more likely scenario is that most Republicans will unite behind Trump. In the Journal’s news pages, Beth Reinhard writes that longtime party stalwarts such as former Republican chairman Haley Barbour and former Ronald Reagan operative Ed Rollins have climbed aboard the Trump bandwagon. “I don’t want to roll over and play dead,” Rollins is quoted as saying. “I want to beat Hillary Clinton, and I don’t want to lose the Senate.”

Yes, as Trump himself as observed, it’s all about winning. So much winning.

There are several problems with the anti-Trump movement. One is that there is a sharp division between the sort of establishment Republicans who would have preferred Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio and the right-wingers who wanted Ted Cruz. If a third-party challenge develops, it will almost certainly come from the right, with members of the establishment comforting themselves with the thought that Clinton is likely to be the most unpopular president-elect in history.

The other problem is that some of the most eloquent voices of anti-Trumpism belong to people whom Trump supporters most despise—“the GOP’s donor class and Washington-based establishment,” as Eli Stokols puts it in Politico.

For instance, the most forceful argument against Trump in recent days was offered in New York magazine by Andrew Sullivan, who writes that “hyperdemocracy” has fueled Trump’s rise, and that a Trump presidency would usher in something that looks very much like fascism. But as a Brit, as a conservative who’s not all that conservative, and as a gay man, Sullivan is not exactly well-positioned to sway the Trumpoid base.

By any measure, Clinton should not only beat Trump, but should send him to a historic defeat, possibly ushering in a Democratic majority in the Senate and maybe the House as well. As Chris Cillizza notes in the Post, even a normal Republican would have a huge challenge given the Electoral College realities of 2016. But “Crooked Hillary,” as Trump calls her, has plenty of problems of her own, and it’s not difficult to imagine her getting bogged down between now and November. A smart prediction is that she will almost certainly win, with the emphasis on almost.

Then, too, there’s the media’s responsibility in making sure that Trump is not treated like a normal candidate. This is a man who has hurled racist invective toward Latinos and Muslims, who has called for torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists, and who has called for murdering the families of terrorists just to send a message.

On Tuesday, Trump began his day by linking Ted Cruz’s father to JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on the basis of an evidence-free story in the National Enquirer. By the time the polls had closed in Indiana, his latest bizarre outburst had been all but forgotten—as had Trump’s numerous other transgressions. As Isaac Chotiner writes in Slate:

CNN, MSNBC, and Fox contented themselves with bright chatter about Ted Cruz’s hurt feelings, about Donald Trump’s political skill, about the feckless, pathetic Republican establishment. None of the commentators I saw mentioned the import of what was happening. Large chunks of the media have spent so long domesticating Trump that his victory no longer appeared momentous. He is the new normal.

There is, or should be, nothing normal about Trump’s rise. Sadly, the political instinct is to make nice with the victor, while the media’s instinct is find and occupy middle ground—and when there isn’t any, pretend otherwise.