by Steve Wagner
Wednesday’s anti-Trump rant by George Will is far from his first. On September 9, it was “Donald Trump is a Malleable Mess.” On August 26, it was “The Havoc that Trump Wreaks – on his own Party” (which included this memorable sentence, “Every sulfurous belch from the molten interior of the volcanic Trump phenomenon injures the chances of a Republican presidency.”) On August 12, it was “Donald Trump is a Counterfeit Republican.”
As less biased observers recognize, Donald Trump is not injuring but increasing the chances of a Republican presidency. He is a, if not the, principal reason the viewership of the four Republican debates was 74.4 million. He has made the other candidates stronger, as the latest and best Fox Business debate last week demonstrated (and he has made the debate formats better by criticizing the media moderators).
What has changed over time in Will’s columns on Trump is the disclosure statement. For the previous three, it was: “The columnist’s wife, Mari Will, works for Scott Walker.” Now George Will flogs for Chris Christie.
These columns of his are so tendentious it’s a bit beside the point to review the logic of his argument. George Will doesn’t like Trump, and does like Chris Christie, and that’s really all you need to know. But let’s humor him: Will thinks Chris Christie, but not Trump, Carson or Fiorina, will be able, in a general election debate, to ask Hillary Clinton: where “is America safer or more respected today, anywhere in the world, than it was when Clinton became secretary of state?” “It is beyond peculiar,” Will writes, “it is political malpractice for Republicans to fritter away time and attention on candidates who, innocent of governing experience, cannot plausibly ask that question with properly devastating effect.” Really? I can see Carly Fiorina driving that point home just fine, thanks.
Christie, on the other hand, according to Will has an unmatched “combination of a prosecutor’s bearing and a governor’s executive temperament.” And a cool 2 percent of Republicans in national polls. Is Will the only political observer in America who doesn’t think Christie thought it would be cool to snarl traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., as political payback? Is this the sort of temperament he means?
A bit of irony is that George Will shares with the man he once called a lapdog (George H. W. Bush) a distaste – contempt, really – for the necessity of appealing to voters for their support. And this fuels what is perhaps Republicans’ biggest problem: we’re not very good at the art of persuading undecided voters. So much emphasis is now placed on “mobilizing the base” and voter turnout metrics that we have forgotten how to convince skeptical voters that you’re their guy or gal. Case-in-point, look at the Bush independent expenditure campaign’s pathetic effort to tear down Marco Rubio (I suppose on the logic that Bush can’t afford to lose Florida). This is what we now do instead of making an affirmative case for our candidates.
But Trump does. Yes, he insults his opponents and essentially called Rand Paul a terrier. And that’s regrettable. But his popularity is much more a function of his selling of “The Donald.”
I don’t expect that Donald Trump will be the party’s nominee, but his speech last week in Fort Dodge, Iowa, cannot be dismissed, as Will does, as a “coarse, vulgar and nasty 95-minute effusion.” It was actually a pretty remarkable tour d’horizon of national policy. Having heard that he insulted Iowa’s voters by calling them stupid, I pulled up the video expecting a Trump version of Howard Dean’s “EEEEYYYYYAAAA” moment. What he actually said concerned Ben Carson’s recent statements; “How stupid [in context: does Carson think] are the people of Iowa, how stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap.”
The speech was ridiculously too long and the audience left exhausted, and Trump’s dwelling attacks on his opponents are signs of weakness rather than strength. But you have to give it to him: he raises transcendent issues that touch people, and invoke memories of a better America. Will the Trump presidency actually restore public use of “Merry Christmas?” Of course not. But his fans in Iowa love it that he says he will.
Steve Wagner is president of QEV Analytics, a public opinion research firm, and a senior fellow at the American Principles Project.