When Barack Obama was re-elected President, some Republican leaders urged the party to address its image problem. They wanted the focus of the party to return to its fiscally conservative, small government values. To do that, the party would need to shake the perception that it was a party of exclusion, waging a war on minorities, women and non-Christians.
Donald Trump is the leading contender for the Republican nomination.That means the party’s rebranding effort not only failed, it was hijacked.Trump has risen to prominence by exploiting socially conservative impulses and emboldening them in a way only Trump could.
In his hands, immigration reform means building a wall nearly 2,000 miles long and entirely suspending the limited refugee program we have. He labels all Mexican immigrants as rapists or other manner of degenerates. He advocates for a database of practicing Muslims and the closure of certain mosques, equating members of a religion with members of a terrorist cell. It’s a move reminiscent of Japanese internment camps in the best light and the build-up to Nazi Germany in the worst light.
Women’s rights, in Trump’s language, boil down to a right to be “taken care of.” He is prolific on the subject of women as negotiable instruments, from how to dispose of them during a divorce, use them to mute negative press, or explain their early success on his reality television competition (they flirted). He is equally verbose on how to value them as assets, even though his formula is simple: how beautiful is she?
Previously pro-choice, he’s now pro-life. He has come out in favor of “traditional marriage,” and says he would overturn the Supreme Court decision ruling that state bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. In November 2015, he urged a boycott of Starbucks because their red holiday cups weren’t Christmas-y enough.
He entrenches the ideologies traditional Republicans never wanted entrenched, all while doing very little to perpetuate the traditional Republican economic platform.
He is an economic populist, who shares more similarities with Bernie Sanders on issues like tax loopholes, Social Security, free trade and corporate interests in Washington than he does with any other candidate. Yes, he wants to repeal ObamaCare, but to replace it with some other government-funded form of health care. And yes, he has a tax plan that would include tax cuts.
If the fervor behind his candidacy does not stem from his much-hyped social agenda and his passing references to tax cuts, what is its source? He claims he will make America great again by “bombing the sh*t out of” the Middle East, committing universally acknowledged war crimes to defeat terrorists, and exercising the power of his own say-so. But he’s not the first to think that carpet bombing and tough talk are enough to fix something. He claims he’s a political outsider. Then he acts like the consummate politician, speaking in platitudes and hyperbole, disregarding compromise and thoughtfulness, and embracing dizzying hypocrisy. He claims his business acumen is qualification enough, pointing to the fortune he has amassed through his branding and licensing efforts. By that logic, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are the next Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Trump dismissed John McCain’s status as a war hero because he was captured, while he secured multiple student or medical deferments (the latter for bone spurs). He is the only candidate to have been criticized by the current Pope, to have been married three times, to have taken four companies into bankruptcy, and to have referenced the sexual appeal of his daughter – including to him – on multiple occasions.
There is no consistency behind any of these other potential avenues of appeal. If Trump wins the Republican nomination, he will expose a dangerous message for the Republican party: that it has become either A: a party that cares so exclusively about lowering taxes that it will accept a man whose rhetoric lines up more neatly with Adolf Hitler’s than with Ronald Reagan’s, or B: a party blindly driven by a strict conservative agenda.
The Republican Party deserves a better message, and a better messenger. Both need to be identified quickly, in a way that’s huge and really great. It needs to be the type of win we’ll never tire of winning.