Trump is getting precious little support from Republicans. It could be fatal.
By Paul Waldman, August 26, 2016
Donald Trump has always operated on the Great Man Theory of the presidency, which in his telling says that solving problems isn’t about institutions or parties or interests or complex systems, but about one top-notch guy making things happen through the force of his will. As he famously said during his convention speech: “I alone can fix it.”
Well, now Donald Trump is truly alone.
In the wake of both his immigration gyrations of the last couple of days and Hillary Clinton’s searing indictment of his “taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party,” something extraordinary happened: He got almost no support from any Republican who wasn’t literally on his payroll. When you turn on cable news or read your newspaper or listen to talk radio, you won’t find what you almost always do in situations like this one: Democrats reinforcing the message of their party’s nominee and Republicans pushing back with the message of their party’s nominee. It’s been practically a one-sided conversation.
That won’t repeat itself on every issue, of course, but in these last two months of the campaign, Trump may get less support from his own putative allies than any candidate in modern history.
Ever since he became the party’s presumptive nominee, Trump’s unpopularity has left Republicans in a difficult position. They didn’t want to be tainted by his more extreme statements, but they also didn’t want to upset Republican voters by abandoning the party’s nominee. So they would endorse him but disagree with him on this or that point, and emphasize how important it is that Hillary Clinton not become president.
But that distancing has been raised to a new level. In ordinary circumstances, when the other party’s candidate offers an attack as brutal as what Clinton said yesterday, the ensuing debate is two-sided. Yet as Chuck Todd noted this morning:
“No Republicans outside the campaign said, ‘How dare you, Hillary Clinton, call the Republican nominee a racist.’ The sound of silence among mainstream Republican elected officials yesterday is stunning.”Spokespeople for Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell both said their bosses hadn’t watched the speech, so no comment. When asked why Trump didn’t get backup from Republican officeholders, RNC communication chief Sean Spicer said, “I don’t know. I think Congress is in recess.” Congress is indeed in recess, but that doesn’t mean Republican members are off at monastery observing a vow of silence.
“By my quick tally, there have been 86 tweets from Republican members of Congress since Clinton’s speech,” Philip Bump reports. “A handful have dealt with the presidential race; none can be interpreted as a defense of Donald Trump.”
Here’s why that’s so important. One of the key functions of debate around issues and controversies is to signal to the rank-and-file where they’re supposed to stand. If something like the Law of the Sea Treaty suddenly became a hot issue, Democrats and Republicans would begin with little in the way of coherent opinions, but would gradually take on the positions of the politicians and media figures they trust. The more attention and discussion the issue got, the more the public would polarize in its beliefs.
That’s even true on issues where you’d think everyone would have no trouble determining for themselves what they believe; that partisan signaling is a key force in determining public opinion. But if you’re a Republican watching the news right now, you see one Democrat after another reinforcing Clinton’s message, but very few people stepping up to say that Trump isn’t a racist. While there are a few conservative media figures like the reliable Sean Hannity standing behind him, Trump is even getting criticized in the conservative media. Here’s Rush Limbaugh laughing about how Trump has now embraced “amnesty,” and here’s Fox News anchor Shepard Smith saying Trump “trades in racism.” Rank-and-file conservatives are going to have to work pretty hard to find even one of their own defending Trump.
Which is of course exactly what Hillary Clinton wants. There’s been a long-running debate among Democrats about whether it’s better to argue that Trump is the logical extension of everything the GOP has been doing and saying for decades, or to say that Trump is an aberration who stands outside the party. The best argument for the presidential nominee isn’t necessarily the best one for other candidates. If you’re running for House or Senate or local city council, you’d like to see your opponents tied as closely to Trump as possible. You want voters to conclude that the entire Republican Party is poisoned. Clinton, on the other hand, has decided that the most effective argument for her is to say to Republicans that they can vote for her without rejecting their party.
That’s why she spent time in her speech praising Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain, saying they all had rejected the kind of bigotry Trump represents. Party identity is a powerful anchor in voters’ decision-making, and it will be far easier for her to steal the votes of Republican moderates by convincing them that voting against Trump is perfectly compatible with being a loyal Republican than it would be to convince them to reject their party in toto.
Trump needs Republicans to reject that argument. In fact, it’s the bare minimum he needs. In order to win, Trump has to hold on to virtually all Republicans and win over Democrats and independents as well. (Recall that in 2012, Barack Obama won 92 percent of Democrats and Mitt Romney won 93 percent of Republicans, yet Obama was reelected fairly easily.) As election day approaches, partisans can be expected to come home to a great degree, but right now Democrats are more firmly behind Clinton than Republicans are behind Trump. For instance, in this YouGov poll, 75 percent of Republicans said they’re supporting Trump and 84 percent of Democrats said they’re supporting Clinton.
Right now Democratic voters are getting a unanimous, repeated, emphatic message to get behind Clinton, while Republican voters are getting a whole lot of mixed messages. If that doesn’t change, Donald Trump is going to have an awfully hard time keeping his party’s voters from defecting.