Republicans Are Riding on the Back of the Trump Tiger

Republican U.S. presidential candidate and former Governor Jeb Bush walks past rival candidate and businessman Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, right, as they stand at the front of the stage at the conclusion of the Republican U.S. presidential debate sponsored by CBS News and the Republican National Committee in Greenville, South Carolina, on February 13. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In the Republican South Carolina debate and since, the Donald, irrepressible and unrepentant, has set out to trump his opponents with a fusillade of epithets, interruptions and GOP heresies, especially focused on Jeb!'s brother George's disastrous war in Iraq and his failure to prevent 9/11.

Donald Trump's favorite description of the other contenders is "liar." And more than once he has attacked the debate audiences booing him for being packed with lobbyists and special interests. (They mostly were party regulars, or, as Trump would have it, "party hacks.")

This is performance art—or farce—unprecedented, sulfurous and at times genuinely witty. Jeb! says to his over-combed tormentor, how dare you attack my family, and adds: "My mother is the strongest woman I know." Without missing a beat, Trump leans into his mic and slaps Jeb! where it hurts: "She should be running."

In the aftermath of the debate, the GOP's panicked establishment has pronounced that finally, finally, finally the politically incorrect demagogue has trumped himself. The early state caucus of insiders assembled by Politico handed down their verdict: "Trump flopped." And as one of them said, the way he attacked was "galactic level stupid."

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who himself ran, or stumbled, for president this time, but fell to earth before the first vote was cast, is sure Trump has stepped into the electoral abyss : "The market in the Republican primary for people who believe that Putin's a good guy"—Trump didn't actually say that—" and W is a liar"—he did say that—"is pretty damn small."

I suspect that the consensus reaction of the conventional pols here is a classic case of the wish, the despairing hope, as father to the thought. And it's a broken record.

The Politico caucus concluded that Trump had "peaked" in July, then said he "lost" the first debate. One member exclaimed, "[W]hat an a--hole." Virtually all agreed "he will implode at some point."

Wishing will not make it so. Indeed the implosion came, we were told, with Trump's bigoted description of Mexican immigrants as rapists, his callous assault on John McCain's war record, his sexist bashing of Fox's Megyn Kelly, his public potty mouthing and other campaign-killing transgressions that exceed even his number of corporate bankruptcies.

Maybe his South Carolina excursion, including a press conference where he doubled down on the insults, will be the turning point that saves the GOP from its own primary voters.

The CBS national survey after the debate reported that 32 percent of Republican and independents who saw the cage match rated a studiously less robotic Marco Rubio the winner. But Trump was the pick of 24 percent, and 42 percent thought he would be the most likely to win in November. The aggrieved and aggressive Jeb! clocked in at 5 percent—below Ben Carson!

It was only a first read, and then a PPP poll conducted post-debate showed Trump at 35 percent, Cruz and Rubio at 18-- and there it is again, Jeb! at 7. There seems to be an adamantine durability to the pitchman's appeal in a new Grand Old Party, ready to kick over the establishment traces.

In 2010 and 2014, the GOP used the Tea Party to capture the House and then the Senate. The question now is, who used whom? The Obama-scorning, health reform-hating, nativist rising, Tea-tinted voters now appear to dominate the Republican primaries. (Think about the alter-Trump, the proudly unreasonable and probably unelectable Ted Cruz, who runs second in the polls despite the universal enmity of his colleagues.)

What's happening here is exactly clear —clear proof of JFK's warning in his Inaugural Address that "those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside." Conservatism has been transformed, so that right now it is less a set of principles and policies than a collection of grievances, angers and alienations.

Trump is the voice of this reaction. Every excess, every shout, validates his strength. So he gets away—so far—with transgressing GOP dogma and assumed proprieties. He coarsens a discussion already suffused with extremism on issues ranging from immigration to gay and women's rights.

And the tone he sets, and the nuclear exchanges it sets off from all but the metronomically civil John Kasich and the somnolent Ben Carson, deface the party in the eyes of general election voters.

As the Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted in the midst of the South Carolina debate: "This isn't just insane, this is suicidal. This is pathetic."

The Donald doesn't care as long as he's ahead. Indeed, this is his path to victory in the primaries—and then, even if he doesn't know it, defeat in November. One of the smartest Republican operatives I know recently told me: "This year we are on a happy stupid march to Seppuku." And so Trump the drum major marches on.

Robert M. Shrum is the Carmen H. and Louis Warschaw chair in practical politics and professor of the practice of political science at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, University of Southern California.