Now that GOP front-runner Donald Trump has scored two double-digit victories in the race for the Republican presidential nomination (and appears poised to win a third), there has been a lot of speculation about how and why his dominance has come to pass — but perhaps pundits should look no further than his 2016 competition.
By and large, Trump’s opponents have stopped short of mounting full-throated opposition to arguably the real estate mogul’s biggest vulnerability – his controversial and widely condemned positions on religion and immigration. Other than a few tepid slaps on the wrist from former Gov. Jeb Bush, who has since dropped out of the race, Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim emigration to the U.S., his pledge to build a massive wall along the southern border of the U.S. (financed by Mexico) to crack down on illegal immigration, and his determination to deport up to 11 million undocumented people from the country have mostly gone unchallenged by his rivals.
These proposals have been called impractical and irresponsible by some, racist and xenophobic by others. And yet while some of the remaining candidates have said they “disagree” with Trump’s ideas, none have completely condemned them – most likely due to the reality that overwhelming majorities of the GOP electorate support them.
In New Hampshire, 65 percent of Republican primary voters said they supported the Muslim ban proposal, and in South Carolina, that number rose to 74 percent. Last fall, a Pew survey found that 73 percent of Republican voters supported the idea of a 2,000-mile border fence. And a Fox News poll from last November found that a huge majority (70 percent) of Republican voters also backed Trump's "deportation force" plan (which he has compared to the controversial and offensively named "Operation Wetback" of the 1950s). While some of Trump's fellow Republicans have critiqued his pledge to deport millions, they have challenged it only in terms of its efficacy and enforcement, not whether it is morally abhorrent or undemocratic.
And then there’s the ugliest (and one of the most persistent) conceits embraced by some members of the conservative electorate – the fiction that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen. Despite verifiable proof repeatedly provided to the contrary, a startling number of Republican primary voters (53 percent, according to a January Huff Post/You Gov poll) still insist the president is somehow illegitimate.
Most mainstream Republican politicians have distanced themselves from the rhetoric of “birtherism,” aware that the racial undercurrents within it are poisonous from a political and moral perspective. And yet Trump has been the champion of the cause, repeatedly taunting the president to produce his papers and, as recently as this month, implying that he is a Muslim. A majority of Trump supporters in the early primaries have applauded his willingness to “tell it like is,” but that phrase could easily be substituted with a “willingness to ‘go there,'” the “there” being previously untoward topics of race.
"In recent history, I think that accusations of racially coded language have often been unfair or exaggerated. Not so in the case of Trump. He really is appealing to racial and ethnic prejudice, and he is not subtle about it," Claremont McKenna College Prof. John J. Pitney Jr., a former RNC official, told MSNBC on Monday.
Some could argue that when Trump retweets a white supremacist (without apology or explanation) or posts unsubstantiated crime statistics alleging a spike in black-on-white crime, he is speaking to voters who have always been there but have not been given a voice by a major candidate before. GOP primary voters' resounding rejection of more traditional candidates seems to speak to a dissatisfaction with nominees who have tried to pivot to the center and appeal to their better angels on issues of race in the past. For instance, while Sen. John McCain was quick to correct a supporter who suggested at a 2008 campaign rally that Obama was a Muslim, Trump went out of his way to say he wouldn't intervene on the president's behalf.
But how will these policies fare in a general election? Overwhelming majorities of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, believe there should be no religious test for people seeking to enter the U.S. and believe that the president was born in Hawaii 55 years ago. A majority also support same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
This presents an uncomfortable paradox for modern Republicans. In the hopes of remaining viable in November, where the demographics will be far more diverse, GOP candidates have shied away from wholeheartedly embracing Trump’s most extreme concepts (which include weighing the idea of a registry to track U.S. Muslims), but they also can’t totally distance themselves from his ideas, either.
Since Trump first brought up the concept building a wall to staunch illegal immigration from Mexico, Sen. Ted Cruz has said he too would build one (he’s even said he’d hire Trump for the job). Sen. Marco Rubio, who has emerged as the consensus establishment favorite, has endorsed the concept, as well. So has Ohio Gov. John Kasich, considered a moderate within the Republican Party when it comes to immigration.
Meanwhile, when Trump first proposed a ban on Muslims, the strongest rebuke the front-runner ever received was Bush kindly asking him to “reconsider” the idea during a televised GOP debate.
What Republicans are facing may have a historical precedent. The Democratic Party suffered a similar identity crisis in the late '60s and '70s, when the establishment seemed to be at odds with much of the rank-and-file members of their base, who were far more radical than the elected officials representing them. Democrats paid the price in general elections, when a "lunatics running the asylum" perception of the party started to take hold. It wasn’t until the '90s and the centrist candidacy of Bill Clinton that the Democrats regained their footing as a competitive party in general elections.
As an increasingly splintered Republican Party faces the prospect of a brokered convention, a similar course correction may be in store.