THE BLOG
04/28/2011 04:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2011

Trump, Birthers, and the GOP Culture of Extremism

Donald Trump is a nightmare candidate for the GOP. While polling well enough to be a serious contender in Republican presidential primaries, he is completely unacceptable to the general electorate. Establishment conservatives like Charles Krauthammer, Chris Chocola, and Karl Rove may wring their hands about a joke candidate like Trump, but the truth is that Donald Trump is a monster of the Republican party's own making. His extreme views, radical populism, lack of serious ideas and conspiracy mongering are all elements that were nurtured and encouraged by the GOP in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections. This brazen demagoguery cost the GOP the Senate in 2010; it is likely to cost them any serious shot at the Presidency in 2012.

Karl Rove is right when he says that Donald Trump is a joke candidate. Let's be clear here, Donald Trump is an accomplished and successful entrepreneur with a lot of skills. He could have decided to make a substantive, serious run for the Presidency. One could imagine him having the type of candidacy that a Warren Buffett, a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs would undertake, showcasing business acumen, analytical prowess and a non-ideological pragmatism to deliver results. However, Trump is a consummate showman. He didn't heed the angels of his better nature and went for ratings and pandering over substance. He made a conscious decision to be a joke candidate because that's what works with today's Republican primary electorate. The only problem is that the joke is on the Republican party. In a number of polls, Trump's Obama Conspiracy Theory sideshow has brought him to the top of the leaderboard in the GOP presidential field. This makes him a serious candidate in terms of potentially winning the Republican presidential nomination, even while his underlying message is deeply unserious. David Brooks says that: "There has always been a large clump of voters who believe that America could reverse its decline if only a straight-talking, obnoxious blowhard would take control." Apparently that clump can currently be found almost exclusively in the pool of Republican primary voters. The general electorate is not fooled by Trump's antics. In a new USA Today/Gallup poll, 64% of Americans say they "definitely would not" vote for Trump. Only 7% say they "definitely would" vote for him. It's no fluke that Trump or no Trump, Republicans are pretty likely to nominate someone for the presidency who is utterly unelectable.

In fact, Trump's rapid rise to prominence is not unique in the current climate and reminds me of a few candidates of elections past. Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, and Joe Miller come to mind right off the top of my head. All are candidates that are like catnip to the GOP base, but not at all electable. Sharron Angle couldn't beat Harry Reid (who Trump contributed to, by the way) when only one-third of Nevadans said they viewed him favorably. Moderate Republican Mike Castle was a lock for the Senate seat in Delaware until Christine O'Donnell knocked him out in the primary. After winning the Republican nomination against Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, Joe Miller was such a poor candidate that Murkowski still won the seat in a write-in campaign. Trump, like Angle, O'Donnell, and Miller, is a product of a Republican party that has lent credibility to its most extreme elements.

It's ironic that one of Trump's biggest critics now is Chris Chocola of the Club for Growth. The extreme ideological purity that the Club for Growth demands and the scorn for politicians they label as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) has helped to fuel a culture of extremism within the Republican party that Donald Trump is tapping into. If you're not familiar with the Club for Growth, it is an organization of hard-line fiscal conservatives that rose to prominence by excoriating moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who both earned the club's "Comrade of the Month" label. The Club for Growth makes a practice of knee-capping Republicans in primaries who were not considered ideologically pure. For example, they endorsed Sharron Angle in the Nevada primary and Joe Miller in the Alaska primary, with Chocola specifically praising Miller and blasting Murkowski. However, they are probably most famous for supporting Pat Toomey in the Republican primary against incumbent Senator Arlen Specter in 2004, which was partly responsible for forcing Specter's defection to the Democratic Party. From railing against taxes to refusing to budge on increasing the debt ceiling, Trump's ideological extremism is newly found, but the path that he is traveling was clearly charted by the Club for Growth.

Karl Rove also should take a good hard look in the mirror as he describes Trump as "out there in the nutty right." The Urban Dictionary defines "Rovian" as: "the political tactic of lying through implying, and without actually lying; leading listeners to a false conclusion without actually making a false statement." Allow me to use Rovian in a sentence: Donald Trump uses Rovian tactics flawlessly by implying that President Obama didn't attend an Ivy League school, didn't write his first book, and wasn't born in this country without definitively stating any of those things. In addition to his Rovian deceptions, Donald Trump is obviously using Rove's famous strategy of pandering to your hardcore base. Birtherism is clearly a winning issue among Republican primary voters, over 40% of whom do not believe the President was born in the country. Trump's "Drill Baby Drill" attitude, obstinate opposition to raising the debt ceiling, and extreme hawkishness all are designed to play to the GOP base. Judging by the polls, this strategy still has legs.

Another candidate who used the Rove strategy perfectly is Sarah Palin, whose ad hominem attacks against the President coupled with an ideological anti-tax stance propelled her to the heights of popularity within the Republican party. Nearly the whole of the Republican Party establishment is complicit in embracing her scorched-earth, anti-intellectual brand of politics. This is a shame because there is much about Sarah Palin and other "outsider" candidates that is appealing. We want to believe that an outsider can drain the swamp and that a mother of young children, not a child of privilege, can have the guts and integrity to take on the establishment. When "outsider" becomes, however, a euphemism for shrill demagogue pandering to the base, it actually has the ironic impact of forcing moderate voters back into the arms of the establishment. With Trump or another extremist as the GOP nominee, this will almost certainly mean a swing back to President Obama.

After John McCain won the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, he attempted to embrace Rove's partisan, red-meat tactics. He was never really comfortable with them. The GOP had massive losses in 2008, not only losing the Presidency, but losing even traditionally Republican Congressional districts on Obama's coattails. In the wake of these losses, many within the party questioned whether the GOP had moved too far to the right to ever maintain a majority. Conservatives, such as David Frum, were cautioning against a GOP that would become increasingly marginalized as Americans embraced pragmatic moderation. Instead of learning this lesson, however, the GOP decided that their problem had been a lack of ideological purity. They decided to double-down on their populist base-pandering. Obama was a Kenyan socialist whose very existence was a threat to the Republic. Even his wife's anti-obesity campaign would be opposed with the ideological zeal of a life and death struggle. To me, this issue says it all: the mouthpieces for the GOP would rather have increasingly fat and unhealthy American kids then hand the Keynan Muslim Socialist's wife a victory, no matter how unimportant. This strategy was remarkably effective for the low-turnout 2010 midterm elections, when facing an exhausted and complacent Democratic base. Political tone-deafness by Democrats in the 2010 elections, inept Democratic messaging on health care and a stagnant economy made this strategy effective in the short term. However, if the GOP had run a more reasoned campaign, they could have taken control of both the House and the Senate by capitalizing on errors made by Democrats without pursuing a strategy that consigned the GOP to extremism. After all, voters were inevitably disillusioned when the soaring rhetoric and perfection of "change" in the abstract met the messy, self-seeking, sausage making, compromise-ridden process of governance. However, the GOP didn't take the high-road, it took the extremist road and whether or not this was the reason for their success in 2010, this same strategy will prove fatal in a high-turnout presidential year against a charismatic incumbent.

The American people are fair by nature and have acute powers of observation. They can see through exaggeration and caricature and they are attracted by reason, good sense and a willingness to compromise to get things done. They are not attracted by ideological zealots, however interesting they may be in the short-run. Trump scares the Republican establishment because they know that his selection as the GOP Presidential nominee will lead to certain defeat in 2012 and likely long-term damage to the GOP brand. This is why Republican insiders are hoping that Donald Trump is a flash in the pan who will disappear quickly and with minimal embarrassment to the GOP. What they don't realize is that they are the ones who created the conditions and environment that will allow Trump to remain a relevant and serious contender for the GOP Presidential nomination. Even worse, they've created an environment that will continue to reward Trump's type of sensationalist extremism throughout the GOP primaries, even if Trump himself fades from view. You can be sure that Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain or any number of other fringe candidates will be ready to take Trump's place. This virtually ensures that the independent-minded moderates necessary to win in a general election will be driven straight into the arms of President Obama.