We are one week ahead of the Iowa caucuses and all hell has broken loose in the Republican Party. What was once thought would be a simple two-lane race between an “establishment” candidate and an “outsider” candidate has given way to a free for all. And what it reveals is a number of fault lines in what was once a party neatly unified by its loathing of taxes, its commitment to “family values” and its reverence for Old Glory. This election is showing that it’s way more complicated than that.
We know the GOP grassroots are divided by their love for Senator Ted Cruz and their adoration for the pompadoured billionaire gadfly Donald Trump. Those two candidates are garnering the support of nearly half the party and in some states polling shows they have a majority. The fight is starting to get vicious. You have some talk radio hosts treading carefully so as not to anger anyone in the audience while others are taking the fight to the candidates themselves.
Most movement conservatives see Cruz as their perfect avatar. And he is. He checks every box. When he went to Washington he put his reputation where his mouth is and followed the far right agenda to the letter. But apparently a whole bunch of other far right Republicans are unimpressed. They want a full-blown white nationalist and Trump is their man. What was once a strong faction organized around social conservatism and small government ideology is now divided in two. It’s hand to hand combat in the trenches.
In New Hampshire, Cruz is down with the rest of the herd fighting for second place, so the Trump phenomenon is even more dominant there than it is elsewhere. But unless Cruz makes a dismal showing in Iowa, one can expect him to come back in South Carolina and the cage match will resume.
The rest of the Republican base doesn’t know what’s hit them. They seem to be shell-shocked and wondering what in the world has happened to their party. This piece in the New York Times about New Hampshire voters poignantly illustrates their bewilderment:
Mrs. Cleveland put it plainly: “I don’t like Trump.”
In this, the 70-year-old from Hollis, N.H., has ample, baffled and agonized company in New Hampshire as the presidential primary enters its final, frenzied weeks, with Donald J. Trump remaining atop poll after poll of the state’s Republican electorate.
Or is he? So deep is the dislike for him in some quarters that people like Mrs. Cleveland’s husband, Doug, question the accuracy of polls that so consistently identify Mr. Trump as leading the field with around 32 percent. “I’ve never met a single one of them,”
Mr. Cleveland said about those said to be backing Mr. Trump. “Where are all these Trump supporters? Everyone we know is supporting somebody else.”
If those voters are looking for the Republican elites to help them, they are in for a surprise. They too have joined the Cruz-Trump battle, but for completely different reasons.
I had thought a couple of weeks ago that the establishment was coalescing around Ted Cruz, not because they love him so much but simply because Trump had to be stopped. (Of course Trump had to be stopped, right?) There were some indications from the likes of National Review editor Rich Lowry. For instance his comments on Fox last September made clear that he wasn’t a fan:
Lowry: Look, Trump obviously attacks everyone, but she has become a much bigger target and part of what’s going on here is that last debate, let’s be honest, Carly cut his balls off with the precision of a surgeon…
Kelly: What did you just say!
Lowry: …And he knows it.
Kelly: You can’t say that.
Lowry: He’s insulted and bullied his way to the top of the polls…
But it wasn’t until this month that he started to reluctantly make the case for Cruz as the Trump stopper. I wrote about his apt, if startling, comparison between Cruz and Nixon (in a good way!) here.
Obviously and most importantly, Cruz is not a paranoiac. He is more ideological than Nixon. And he has none of Nixon’s insecurity, in fact the opposite. Nixon went to tiny Whittier College and resented the Northeastern elite; Cruz went to Princeton and Harvard and could be a member of the Northeastern elite in good standing if he wanted to be.
But Cruz is cut from roughly similar cloth. He wears his ambition on his sleeve and is not highly charismatic or relatable. In high school, he could have been voted most likely to be seen walking on the beach in his dress shoes. If Cruz wins the nomination, it will be on the strength of intelligence and willpower. He will have outworked, outsmarted and outmaneuvered everyone else.
It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement but it sounded as if Lowry was coming to terms with the fact that Cruz was going to be the only one who could beat Trump. And this, I erroneously assumed, meant that “the establishment” was coming to terms with Cruz. I could not have been more wrong. As it turns out the establishment is as riven as the rest of the party.
Word started trickling out from various elected officials that Trump was the preferred candidate. Cruz’s fellow GOP senators are very upset that he has been rude and obstructionist, so upset that they are willing to risk the fate of the nation on a megalomaniacal billionaire blowhard. They believe they can control Donald Trump better than they can control Ted Cruz. Think about that.
Then on Friday, the National Review validated my earlier suspicions with the release of their “Against Trump” issue, featuring a collection of essays from various conservative commentators making the case. Some people will say that the National Review is not really establishment, but that’s absurd. It’s been part of the Republican party establishment for decades as the voice of its conservative faction. Since Reagan, it’s been the voice of the party. Lowry is not an outsider and neither is the magazine.
While they didn’t explicitly endorse Cruz, it’s clear they are attempting to try to make peace with the idea that somebody has to stop the white nationalist celebrity Trump. And Ted Cruz, for all his faults (and they are legion) is not a total madman, at least not from their perspective. You go to the election with the party you have not the party you wish you had.
The Iowa caucus is a week away and New Hampshire just a few days later. It’s likely that they will be clarifying. If not there are a bunch of primaries and caucuses right on their heels. A month from now this could very well feel like it was something out of a dream. But one thing is very clear no matter what happens: the Republican Party and the conservative movement have been revealed to have some major fault lines that were not obvious before. Everyone knew that the grassroots and the Establishment were at odds. Now we see that divisions exists within the grassroots and establishment as well.
No wonder a far right fanatic and a white nationalist are making serious runs for the presidential nomination. The party is in a much deeper crisis than we knew.
This article originally appeared in Salon.