You might think that the recent poll showing Donald Trump spiking among Republicans is about Donald Trump. It is not. It is about the Republican Party and its very dark soul when it comes to immigration. The rank and file didn’t much care for Trump as recently as May. It swooned this month when it discovered he’s a bigot.
In May, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 65 percent of Republicans saw Trump unfavorably. In their relative and blissful ignorance, these Republicans had it about right. But then Trump declared his candidacy in a frothing statement about Mexican rapists, and the GOP’s heart started to pound. The numbers got reversed. All of a sudden only 40 percent of them view him unfavorably. The rest — about 60 percent — can hardly quiet their hearts.
This stunning turnabout — this depressing and somewhat scary endorsement of frustration, fear and old-fashioned hate — is sure to be noticed by the other GOP candidates. Trump is now up in Jeb Bush territory — Jeb the moderate conservative, Jeb the realist on immigration, Jeb the scion of all those Walker’s Point Bushes and Jeb the husband of a Mexican woman. He cannot take on Trump by becoming more like him.
The very many others are not so constrained, and it is the nature of politics to move where the votes are. Moderation on immigration is, as Newt Gingrich found out in 2011, a loser in the GOP. What Trump is showing is not just that a hard line on illegal immigration pays off, but it pays off big if the overall message contains, like a rock in a snowball, a core of anger. As The Donald himself knows, his text is just a piece of his message. More important is his demeanor. He’s giving the GOP establishment the finger.
Surely, Trump’s number will fall. For a time back in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy polled well among the same people who also favored George C. Wallace, the belligerent racist. These voters were simply embracing what they thought were anti-establishment candidates, and since RFK was challenging President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination, he was, by definition, an insurgent. That soon changed.
At the moment, no one is more anti-establishment than Trump. Americans frightened by a changing and, when it comes to good middle-class jobs, constricting economy are looking for a champion. They see one in Trump, a Mussolini with a comb-over, who is now as much admired for the enemies he’s making as for his inflammatory statements on immigration. For the moment, he stands alone. If his numbers stay high, he won’t be alone for long.