News & Politics

Media Missed the Big Story: GOP Establishment Is Coalescing Behind Donald Trump

A recent surge of support for the Donald signals the party may not have much of a choice.

For weeks, media outlets have been running stories about how the Republican establishment is freaking out over the unstoppable Donald Trump. This reached its zenith last week when longtime conservative gatekeeper National Review published essays and an open letter signed by dozens of famous names urging people not to support Donald Trump.

This cause quite a splash, if not with voters, with right-wing media who debated, discussed and dissected its effect on the race. Like almost every other attempt to detail the Donald, this appears to have had little effect. Indeed, even the National Review seems resigned to concede, as NRO’s Rich Lowry reluctantly wrote Friday:

Few expected Donald Trump would be in a dominant position days before the Iowa caucuses. Fewer still expected the Republican establishment would be among the mogul’s deluded enablers...

There is much argument about what really constitutes the establishment. The past few weeks suggest a simple acid test: If you look at Donald Trump and think, “There’s a man I can deal with.” If you tell yourself, “He’s utterly without principle and therefore encouragingly malleable.” If you wonder, “How can I keep my head down, and maybe come out OK during a Trump campaign or even a Trump administration?” Well then, you are a member of the establishment in good standing, and you’ve got a problem.

The Trump rationalizations emanating from the wise old hands are something to behold. We’ve seen Republican consultants go from trying to organize Stop Trump efforts to declaring the Donald inevitable and the best of all alternatives in the space of a couple of weeks.

Lowry is quite right that the "establishment” is a terribly knotty term (as Bernie Sanders found out the hard way when he referred to Planned Parenthood as such), but for the sake of argument we’ll call it the loose confederacy of influential power brokers who validate a candidate. And those powerbrokers are more and more signaling or outright coming out for the putative frontrunner. 

Last night, two more big names in conservative politics, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee lent their considerable credibility to Trump, joining him onstage for their dubious “veterans benefit” opposite the GOP debate. This came on the heels of two major players on the evangelical right, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Jerry Falwell, Jr. endorsing or effectively endorsing his candidacy. Grassley was a huge surprise, since as a senator for nearly four decades, he is the definition of establishment. Other major players who have recently signaled their willingness to back a Trump nomination include Tim Pawlenty and former nominee Robert Dole. 

Another point that's been overlooked is not who has supported Trump, but who has remained neutral during his run. Major voices like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, while voicing slight criticisms, have left open the door for support. Fox News has a balance of anti- and staunchly pro-Trump voices. Even as Trump has toyed with the powerful conservative influence machine—including his most recent row with Megyn Kelly—Fox chairman and CEO Roger Ailes has been smart enough never to cut ties completely with Trump. Indeed, the night before Trump boycotted the GOP debate on Fox, he was on with Bill O'Reilly airing his grievances and plugging his campaign. 

So what's going on? Lowry blames five key factors: Trump has largely been nice to Republican members of Congress while Cruz hasn’t; most insiders actually have no principles and just want to beat the Democrats; the GOP has convinced itself Trump can do better than Cruz; they’re all cynics, and finally Trump has simply demoralized “principled” conservatives into submission. But the answer may be much simpler: They’re scared of him.

Trump is going to win, and the quicker one gets in line, the less likely Trump, the petulant bully, will jump on Twitter and call them losers or stupid. For all the ways American democracy can be managed, tweaked, filtered, and bought, at the end of the day, 120,000 caucus goers will decide next Monday who the official frontrunner is and all signs point to Trump. It’s likely then, sans a few hold-outs, the rest of the “establishment” will rally around him, especially if Hillary prevails and the need to fight their dreaded nemesis becomes that much more urgent.

There’s also the fact that Trump shares grassroots support not just among GOP voters, but with their core evangelical base, 37% of whom support Trump: 17 points higher than the next strongest candidate, Ted Cruz. The Huffington Post reported Friday that "Republican Activists Think Donald Trump Is Their Best Shot To Win," augmenting the argument that the core of the party sees Trump as their best bet. In this sense, the establishment is reluctantly following their base, because to maintain any legitimacy, they have no choice. It’s best to think of the last few weeks as the establishment attempting one last flea-flicker to defeat the frontrunner; with this clearly not working and Trump on the verge of sweeping Iowa and New Hampshire, they're sure to fall right in line.

Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst at FAIR and contributing writer for AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJohnsonNYC.

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