Graham: Trump is “wrecking ball”

Donald Trump’s unexpected popularity with the GOP grassroots has caught many Republican Party leaders by surprise — and perhaps demonstrates how far gone the GOP is. Trump is drawing good-sized crowds, mostly Tea Party types, and leads the GOP pack in some polls.

Keep in mind, though, that with 16 candidates in the field the GOP vote is highly fragmented at this stage, and no candidate is polling much better than 10% — a level of support within the reach of fringe candidates with name recognition. Such candidates have no chance unless they can broaden their support.

Right now, Trump doesn’t look like a candidate who can. So far, he’s largely a one-trick pony, talking up illegal immigration to the segment of the GOP base that gets fired up over that issue. That’s a fairly large group, but not one the GOP leadership wants to pander to, because doing so will drive away the Hispanic voters they consider crucial to their party’s 2016 election strategy. Another problem is that whole issue is tainted with racism.

Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), one of the party’s few rational voices, took to the Sunday talk shows this weekend to try to galvanize GOP leaders to crack the whip on Trump. Graham, himself a presidential contender, minced no words. He described Trump as a “wrecking ball” who is jeopardizing the GOP’s future, accused him of “demagoguing” the immigration issue, called him a liar in more polite words, and argued the Republican Party would lose its “moral legitimacy” to govern if it doesn’t repudiate Trump’s position on the issue.

Watching the video, I get the impression that Graham is speaking from the heart; but he’s also advancing his own candidacy in a number of ways. First and foremost, he’s trying to defuse a loose cannon who may threaten his party’s election prospects. He’s playing the role of party uniter, portraying himself as a man of principle, and showing he’s tough enough to stand up to thuggery and defend an unpopular but responsible position. All of these things make him look like presidential timber; and by contrasting himself with a Palinesque candidate running a circus-like campaign, Sen. Graham — a relatively unknown candidate — may draw favorable attention to himself. It’s a good strategy for an underdog with serious credentials, and in that respect, Trump is a gift from heaven for Graham.

My living memory encompasses 16 presidential elections. (I was alive in 1948, but too young to remember it.) Over that span of 60 years, some outcomes were predictable, such as LBJ in 1964 and Reagan in 1980, but a typical presidential election is impossible to call this far in advance, and the coming campaign might take some surprising turns. The long and arduous presidential campaign process is a winnowing process. Single-issue and marginal candidates participating at this stage have little or no chance to win, but they can hope to influence the debate and push the contenders’ positions in one direction or another.

Trump might fall in this category. He’s clearly trying to push immigration to the forefront. But if he builds support, instead of fading, he also might evolve into a major candidate. It’s too early to write him off. Either way, the GOP leadership is taking notice, and is worried about him.

Trump shouldn’t be considered a “serious” candidate. He knows a lot about marketing, and has experience as a TV personality, so he can work a crowd. That’s a useful political skill, but not a leadership quality or governing skill. He doesn’t understand the complex issues that land on a president’s desk or know how to govern. His track record as an Obama “birther” established him as a crank; his remarks about immigrants are widely seen as racist; his comments on foreign policy are uninformed and reckless. He uses the techniques of demagoguery to exploit the ignorance and prejudices of the GOP’s fringe elements. In a reasonable democracy, all this should get him kicked off the stage early on.

But this is America, where kitsch sells, and ordinary people have a constitutional right to be stupid and believe flagrant lies. Offer them a totally unqualified candidate with the right marketing touch and any damn thing could happen. Our method of choosing our country’s leader may be democratic, but there’s no guarantee it’ll be rational or serve our best interests. On the other hand, there’s an unsettling possibility that Lindsay Graham may become a lonely voice crying in an empty wilderness. C’est la vie.




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