How has the Republican establishment tried, and failed, to take out Donald Trump?
Let me count the ways.
The GOP’s first line of defense against Trump is usually to claim that his policies would be disastrous. Last week Mitt Romney declared that, “If Donald Trump’s plans were ever implemented, the country would sink into prolonged recession.”
This argument is less than compelling, though, when you consider how little daylight lies between Trump’s policies and those of his two chief rivals, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
All three would blow up the deficit by trillions of dollars, losing more tax revenue as a share of economic output than any tax cut on record. Their health-care plans are virtually indistinguishable. All three promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, and both Cruz and Trump want to round up and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. None accepts the scientific consensus on man-made climate change. All want to further restrict access to abortion and further expand access to guns. And so on.
Caught undercutting their own arguments that Trump’s policies would be uniquely intolerable, Republican elites then confusingly resort to arguing that Trump may not actually believe all those intolerable policies after all.
Party elders and campaign rivals have doubled down on claims that Trump’s not a “true conservative,” and that he may not uphold his hard-line rightist stances, because not so long ago he espoused more liberal views. But this merely gives Trump an opportunity to invoke Ronald Reagan, another late-in-life party-switcher. More important, voters just don’t seem to care much about ideological purity.
When that tactic fails, Republican bigwigs attack Trump’s indecorousness and vulgarity. But there’s little high ground for them to stand on here, either, given that their preferred candidate recently crawled into the gutter, too.
Recall that it was Rubio, not Trump, who first invoked Trump’s genital size on the campaign trail. In an instant, what had been a subtext in Trump’s campaign — his big wall, big buildings, big wealth, big poll numbers — became text. But that was Rubio’s doing, not Trump’s.
Condemnations of Trump’s race-baiting and nationalism likewise fall flat, for the same reason: hypocrisy. Party leadership turned a blind eye when Trump spewed birtherist nonsense about President Obama’s citizenship and faith, and when talk radio hosts rallied the base with their own racially tinged rhetoric. Why should anyone, let alone Trump supporters, be swayed by the party’s protestations about such bile now?
Then, elites try targeting Trump’s opacity and lack of accountability in his financial dealings.
But the other candidates also only pretend at transparency. Rubio, Cruz and John Kasich all purport to have released their “tax returns,” but in fact the abbreviated documents they’ve published leave out charitable donations, income sources and all the other substantive details that are part of a real tax return — you know, the full documents that every major-party nominee has released since 1980.
Cruz likewise complains that the lamestream media has withheld negative coverage and exposés of Trump and his financial activities. This accusation is both demonstrably false and demonstrably funny, when you consider Cruz’s declarations that you shouldn’t trust anything you see in the media anyway.
Republicans have hacked away at both the customs and the institutions that impose accountability and now have the gall to complain that a party insurrectionist is not held to account.
Of all the ploys that Republican leadership has deployed to curb Trumpmentum, perhaps the most pitiful is the #NeverTrump campaign. Anti-Trump enthusiasts have spread the hashtag far and wide on social media. Rubio’s website even sells hats, stickers and other swag featuring the slogan.
Yet when asked during the last debate whether they’d support Trump if he became the Republican nominee, every candidate left standing pledged he would. If the other candidates believe a Trump presidency would really be so unendurable, agreeing to support him in November is a strange way to show it. Perhaps #NeverTrump is short for #NeverTrumpExceptDuringTheGeneralElection.
So why have none of the GOP’s attacks on Trump stuck? Maybe it’s because Trump, the new Teflon Don, has unusually effective nonstick properties. Or maybe it’s because party honchos have been too cowardly to do the one thing — an admittedly very unpleasant thing — that might convince Republican voters that Trump is a real threat to the liberal world order.
They’d need to voice the most damning insult of all, at least in the minds of Republicans: an acknowledgment that even Hillary Clinton would make a better president than Donald J. Trump.