House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) won his primary election, 84 percent to 16 percent. His office gleefully sent around an Associated Press story reporting that a Marquette Law School poll shows that he “has 80 percent approval among Republicans statewide. And even when Democrats are included, Ryan’s approval statewide sits at 54 percent.”
And yet — despite Ryan’s sky-high approval and obliteration of the Trumpkin mob, the media insist that the Trumpkins and their assorted cheerleaders in talk radio who campaigned enthusiastically against Ryan remain a threat. Really? You would think that the conclusion from the media, from mainstream Republicans and from party officials would be “Well, these people are a joke! Their influence is hugely exaggerated!”
In the name of “balance,” the media persist in taking alt-right opponents of Ryan and other establishment Republicans seriously. Donald Trump’s nomination by a plurality within the GOP, a minority party (his 13 million votes amounts to about one-sixth of the number he will need in November), has led to the perception that these Republicans now dominate the party from stem to stern.
Coverage of Ryan’s crackpot challenger, Paul Nehlen, was grossly overplayed; he was never any kind of serious threat. It’s good for ratings to cover the race as if it were competitive, I suppose, but it’s not truthful journalism. The symbiotic relationship between right-wing cranks starved for attention and the media delighted to attribute great power and importance to an embarrassing fringe character on the right distorts the political environment. Artificially encouraging high-decibel conflict makes for good ratings — at the expense of functional politics.
But then, part of the problem is that Republican leaders take the fringe too seriously. Republican presidential candidates cower in fear of anti-immigrant advocates despite polls showing that GOP primary voters support by a considerable margin a path to legalization. The rump of the Freedom Caucus still manages to gum up the works in the House to prevent passage of an actual budget. Fear of the fringe can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, as we saw in the GOP presidential primary. Candidates are afraid to take on the mob’s hero; the loudest voices get the coverage and name ID. The Republican National Committee chairman, for goodness’ sake, fears losing Trump more than losing the general electorate; he therefore helped normalize and empower Trump. These Republicans have been scared of their own shadow (as scary as the Trumpkins’ shadow might be) for too long.
If there is a silver lining for Republicans and the center-right in losing a landslide-ish election, it is that the power of the noisy fringe can be tested at the ballot box. There is no electoral majority for Trump’s crackpottery. Kowtowing to the Trumpkins, the evangelical Christian charlatans who bolstered him and the conservative media personalities who flacked for Trump is a losing proposition, as Republicans will be able to see for themselves. It leaves the center-right ripe for picking by Democrats and alienates minorities, women, young voters and college-educated Americans. In essence, the 16 percent (Nehlen’s total) has been leading the 84 percent around by the nose. A drubbing in November may provide Republicans with a crash course in political math.
The misguided desire to “unify” the GOP with Trumpkins inside the tent winds up giving the Trumpkins control, for they abhor normal politics and rational discourse. It would be far better, after the Trump debacle is over, to repudiate them and reorient the party to where the bulk of winnable voters are — in the center-right. Stop genuflecting to the Beltway scorecard-keepers who preach political purism. Stop catering to phony news figures who promote fake news and abject ignorance.
A post-Trump course correction does not mean that working Americans’ concerns are “ignored” — as if peddling snake-oil protectionism and anti-immigrant hatred is the sole means of demonstrating sincere concern for their needs. Rather, it means that the concerns of all Americans need to be addressed rationally and without resort to demagoguery, victimology and continual whining (about the media, about leaders who “betrayed” them, about foreigners). It would have been helpful had the GOP come to its senses months ago, but sometimes it does take a really, really bad loss to drive the message home.