Magazine | May 23, 2016, Issue

Who Caused Trump?

(Roman Genn)
There’s blame enough to go around.

Recriminations are beginning unusually early for Republicans this year. Usually political parties wait until they have lost general elections before their members start blaming one another for the defeats. Sometimes the finger-pointing begins a few weeks ahead of schedule, as the polls foretell doom. This year, the polls have been foretelling Republican doom with six months to go before the election — foretelling it, that is, conditional on Donald Trump’s locking up the nomination, which he appears now to have done.

Trump’s supporters have generally said that the polls should not be believed or denied the polls’ predictive power. A few of them have, however, already devised a preemptive explanation for why neither Trump nor his supporters in the primary will be responsible if he should lose in November. According to this theory, it will be anti-Trump Republicans who have caused a Trump defeat. They will be to blame for not voting for him, or for validating some of Hillary Clinton’s criticisms of him, or for refusing to give him their wholehearted backing.

This theory may turn out to be right — if Clinton defeats Trump narrowly, and especially if a third-party campaign by anti-Trump conservatives exceeds the margin between them. If, on the other hand, Clinton beats Trump by a mile, as the polls suggest she will, then the theory will not explain the result. It will instead be clear, at least for those with eyes to see, that Trump supporters gave an extremely weak general-election candidate the nomination.

How that happened is the subject of another category of precriminations, this time dividing his opponents. The question these precriminations seek to answer is who, besides Trump himself and his supporters, paved the way for his nomination. Four groups are in the dock: Trump’s primary rivals, Republican officials, the media, and conservatives.

Trump’s primary rivals are all at fault, in a sense, for not winning more votes than he did. But Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich have attracted particular blame for supposedly staying in the race after it became clear they could not win. Bush should probably have never entered in the first place. For all the talk about 2016 “not being his year” because of the Republican electorate’s sour mood, it is hard to picture a candidate so diffident and cold winning in any year.

But the dynamics of the campaign were too unpredictable to make these indictments stick. If Bush had dropped out after coming in fourth in New Hampshire, Rubio might have won South Carolina and altered the course of the race. But then again, he might not have: Adding all of Bush’s votes to his would have gotten him to second place. And it was hard to make the case that the fourth-place finisher in New Hampshire should step aside for the guy who took fifth.

Some of Kasich’s behavior, on the other hand, is harder to explain, let alone defend. Ted Cruz offered to debate Kasich even if Trump refused to participate, allowing the two to make a point of the front-runner’s cowardice. In declining this, Kasich also turned down an opportunity to make himself and his views better known nationally.

The other Republican candidates collectively refused to take on Trump — and devote ad money to attacking him — in the early stages of the race. Early ads would have had to persuade Republican voters not to choose Trump. They might not have worked; but later ads had the harder task of persuading Republicans to stop someone already on the path to the nomination.

Elected Republicans, meanwhile, mostly decided not to get involved in the presidential race. A very few of them, generally the most opportunistic, endorsed Trump. But few of them were moved by Trump’s character, or his principles, or even his poll numbers, to endorse someone else. Kasich won the support of one senator, Trump of one, and Cruz of five (counting himself): Most Senate Republicans have stayed neutral. If Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona, or Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, or most of their colleagues, are alarmed by the prospect of Trump as the Republican nominee, you wouldn’t know it from anything they did.

Along with the party’s donors, most Republican officials moved in the blink of an eye from thinking that it was unnecessary to act against Trump because it was too early in the primaries to thinking it was futile to act against him because it was too late. A lot of anti-Trump commentary at the start of the race proceeded from the assumption that such an obviously flawed nominee would be unacceptable to the party. But the party’s leaders gave its voters no signal that Trump was unacceptable.

Some of them did worse. Anti-Trump conservatives are angry right now at Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus for saying that Republicans should support the nominee, whoever he is. But that’s the chairman’s job; if he can’t say that in good conscience, he should resign. What he didn’t have to do was get all the presidential candidates to take a pledge to support the nominee. That pledge was not intended to help Trump, but rather to make it harder for him to run as a third-party candidate if he lost. Its effect was to handicap Trump’s rivals, since the strongest arguments against him concern his unfitness for office. The RNC also did what it could to make the primaries more friendly to front-runners; these efforts, too, ended up helping a candidate it didn’t expect.

The media, from the start of the campaign, gave Trump far more coverage than any of the other candidates. (Actually, the media did that from before the start, since they had already made him a celebrity.) He has been good for ratings. But it’s the conservative end of the media, from Fox News to many radio talk-show hosts, that really helped him. They did more than give him a hearing: They made endless excuses for him, and they ignored stories that might hurt him.

You could watch many Sean Hannity interviews with Trump (and there have been many) without learning that Trump is an extremely unpopular figure. Nor would you have any sense of the fraud controversies surrounding his “university.” Hannity protests that he is not a journalist — and if by that he means that he is not someone who tries to keep his audience informed, he is certainly right.

Many commentators have suggested that Trump’s rise is evidence of a deep pathology among movement conservatives. The critique comes in several versions. An implausible version faults conservatives for having been too hostile to President Obama and his agenda. Obstructionism led to nihilism and then to Trump. The defects of this theory are that Senator Cruz is a much more convincing obstructionist than Trump, who boasts regularly of his willingness to cut deals with Democrats and has donated to many of them; and that Trump has done worse with the very conservative voters who have been most hostile to deal-cutting than he has with more moderate voters.

A related argument comes from conservative and libertarian supporters of relatively open immigration policies. They say that restrictionists created Trump by getting conservative voters worked up about immigration. But a better case can be made that the immigration liberalizers tried to create a consensus in the party that was a poor fit for its voters. That attempt succeeded for a while — before Trump, it appeared that almost all the presidential candidates would favor increased immigration and the granting of legal status to illegal immigrants — but eventually backfired by giving Trump an opening.

Some of the connections between organized conservatism and the Trump phenomenon are, however, real. We have come to reward the expression of resentment and anger more than the mastery of public policy. Our attacks on the “political class” have gotten less discriminating over time. Skepticism of the press and of technocratic experts has made conservatives more prone to falling for lies when they’re told by people who are, or claim to be, on our side. It has made us more credulous rather than less.

If the polls are roughly right, we conservatives will all have a lot of time out of power to think about these matters.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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