Monday, February 1, 2016

Iowa, the caucuses and Donald Trump

IOWANS HAVE always taken great pride in casting the first votes in the nation’s presidential elections. This year, that first canvass of the national mood expressed locally carries more importance than just bragging rights or symbolic gravitas.

The vitriol-powered candidacy of billionaire attention addict Donald J. Trump, and the ugly nativist strain he’s set loose in this country, scream for a public assessment of his campaign’s long-term viability. Today and tonight, in caucuses at more than 1,600 locations statewide, residents of the Hawkeye State are set to do exactly that.

And it’s not just a make-or-break moment for Iowa. Today’s caucuses are a moment of truth for the Republican party as well, and comments from GOP insiders in recent months prove that they know it.

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“I think he's now mounting a serious campaign,” a South Carolina Republican said in October. “His stump speech had matured and even though the novelty of his candidacy is wearing off, his straight talk is appealing to people who are so sick of being lied to by the political class.”

Another Iowa Republican told Politico much the same thing, “The more time that goes by that he continues to lead, the more likely it is he wins. That simple. Also, comparatively, he is building a real campaign. More so than many others.”

For one New Hampshire Democrat, Trump’s relatively sophisticated approach to building an information network shouldn’t be a surprise. “Trump may be a jerk, but he is an extremely successful jerk,” he told Politico. “He has the means and the smarts to compete everywhere — and he is not slowing down.”

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THESE FOLKS all spoke to Politico ... in the third week of October, last year, when Republicans could talk about Trump’s campaign from a relatively comfortable chronological distance.

Since then, nothing’s really emerged to alter the Trump trajectory. Nothing except the intervention of the calendar. The election’s moved from Next Year to This Year, and the implied urgency of that fact changes everything. Now, a lot more attention’s being paid to Trump and how to stop him. If that’s even possible.

With the Republican nomination a going concern for a Republican party in real danger of losing its electoral viability, that party’s leaders face a devil-and-deep-blue-sea range of options: Live with Trump and accept the consequences, or redouble efforts to dump him as a prospective nominee, and get behind one of the others in the GOP field, someone less electrifying (but still palatable) to the base, and electorally credible to the broad cross-section of the rest of the country — the ones who turn out to vote.

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Another New Hampshire Republican told Politico that, frankly, the party won’t even consider option #1. “A Trump nomination would result in a third candidate emerging,” the Republican told Politico — a concession to the probability that such a third candidate (almost certainly a Republican already, or a Libertarian) would divide the traditional Republican vote, and dilute the November turnout for the actual Republican nominee, handing the Democrats the White House again.

You can see why the Republicans face a Hobson’s choice as they cross the Rubicon into terra incognita ... what the hell, offer your own high-handed literary metaphor for irreversibly going where you’ve never gone before. Many Republicans didn’t expect Trump’s campaign to have enough loft to last until the caucuses that are underway right now. The fact that it did — and that a win in Iowa would give Trump momentum heading into New Hampshire next week — is forcing party operatives to rethink everything. If this keeps up, the Grand Old Party soon will be in a grand old Panic.

Trump’s grip on the wheel right now has less to do with policy and everything to do with a poisonous cocktail of charisma and an apparently unquenchable anger with the nation’s emerging demography, and the seismic social and cultural changes it has unleashed. This is more than the lightning in a bottle that one candidate captures and other candidates can’t get to save their lives. Trump hasn’t just tapped into a new nativist rage, he’s opened a pipeline.

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IN DECEMBER, for the second time, Trump proposed “closing off parts of the Internet” as a way of preventing online recruitment of terrorists by the ISIS organization. “I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” Trump said, as reported at on Dec. 16. “I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet.”

Time reported that Trump hoped to consult Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Silicon Valley companies, in order to “figure out a way that ISIS can’t do what they’re doing.” Besides the xenophobic reek of the idea itself — “our Internet”? Really? — Trump’s proposal shows a breathtakingly na├»ve view of Internet technology; he talks like an Internet service provider going after somebody for not paying their bill.

Then there’s Trump’s claim that the Syrian refugees desperate for a place in the sun are a “Trojan horse” for terrorists; his call for a wall along the southern border of the United States; his plan for a national database registry of all Muslims residing in this country, and his willingness to consider closing mosques across America. That's why, even more recently, white supremacists have happily affixed themselves to Trump’s campaign, finding a lot to like with Trump’s immigrant-bashing rhetoric.

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The Daily Beast reported on Sunday: “Thom Robb’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Arkansas-based group that has recommended Trump’s opposition to brown-skinned immigrants and Muslim refugees as a great conversation-starter. The Occidental Quarterly, a journal of white-nationalist thought, has declared the real estate mogul’s candidacy ‘a game-changer.’ And then there’s the American National Super PAC, which is paying for the wave of robo-calls that are ringing in Iowans’ living rooms in support of Trump.”

It’s too much to expect the Trump juggernaut to be completely upended by the results in Iowa, or even after all the early primaries. With a campaign war chest that’s almost inexhaustible, Trump won’t go quietly and he’s got money enough to keep him from going at all. But Iowans can certainly send Trump’s campaign and others a reality check.

Their willingness to buck the pro-Trump trend — viewing his pro-ethanol position (a favorite with Iowa farmers) against the backdrop of other pressing national issues, for example — could send a signal that resonates deeper into the primary-season calendar. Their decision tonight about his electability, and his readiness to lead a Republican party desperate to leave the wilderness, may set the tone of much of the campaign to come.

Image credits: Trump: Image from the Trump campaign website. Trump Esquire cover: © 2016 Hearst Communications Inc.

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