There are plenty of adjectives that can be attached to Donald Trump’s campaign for president: arrogant, boisterous, calamitous, frightening (at least for GOP insiders), tumultuous. One thing remains undeniable: from his entry into the 2016 campaign Trump has been impossible for the press to ignore and he’s getting more attention as he goes. Trump certainly has the attention of establishment elephants in Washington and his fellow presidential contenders. The eagerness of some to signal their contempt and harken his demise is evident. Trump’s remarks on immigration at his campaign kick-off were the first dog whistle, then comments about John McCain and Lindsey Graham were supposed to send his poll numbers tumbling, and didn’t. Trump’s tussle with Megyn Kelly and his stance on birthright citizenship should spell doom, but Trump is still polling in the 20% neighborhood; the other shoe still hasn’t fallen. The GOP’s unease with their billionaire candidate is easy to comprehend. Trump’s refusal to swear off a third-party run for office and the freedom his money buys has visions of Ross Perot dancing in their heads, but there is more to his candidacy than a potential assist to Hillary Clinton’s quest to take the oath of office.
“He’s tapped into an anger that people feel,” Carly Fiorina noted at Fox News’ mini-debate. “They’re sick of politics as usual.” It’s a common sentiment among primary voters, one that gave Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich a share of the lead in the 2012 primaries and Tim Donnelly an edge he eventually lost in California’s governors race in 2014. There is a discontent brewing on both sides from voters wary of a Jeb vs. Hillary showdown next year. It’s what fueled the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street groups and is driving some enthusiasm about Bernie Sanders campaign, but Democrats — despite some misgivings about Hillary — are more united according to a Pew Research Center poll that showed only 1 in 10 with an unfavorable view of their party. The GOP is not so fortunate. About 1 in 3 do not have a favorable view of their party. Why? Republicans, more than Democrats, are facing a party with a split identity. Their primary voters are looking for more than promises to de-fund the Affordable Care Act and the president’s orders on immigration, block the Iran nuclear deal, and take the fight to Islamic State. They want to see action and leadership and Trump promises both; call it hope and change part deux.
This is where it gets interesting because the odds are that Trump will not be able to maintain his lead, though his billions give him an edge few other candidates have had. Elephants are going to be left with the usual choice: insurgent or establishment? That is the GOP’s identity crisis. On one side stands a class looking at presidential losses and demographic shifts and arguing for more outreach; the other looks at victories in 2010 and 2014 and sees a silent majority looking for candidates willing to talk the talk at elections and walk the walk in office. There is a way to win over both sides that doesn’t involve the usual identity-based appeals. The GOP can gain traction by offering an alternative and talking to people about principles and policy in places they don’t normally go, like inner cities and college campuses, while refusing to address women and minorities as a monolithic bloc waiting to be won over by promises on immigration reform and Planned Parenthood funding. When the general election does roll around the Democrat is going to paint the elephant as a Trump acolyte, so the nominee should carry some of that bravado and be prepared to punch back. The GOP won’t win without bringing both sides to the table. The alternative is to suffer the fate of John McCain and Mitt Romney, and nobody wants that. Except Hillary.