The conventional wisdom of course is that Trump cooked his goose with that John McCain comment, and every so often the c.w. turns out to be right, as it might in this case. Republican base voters love their war heroes, provided they didn’t come home and oppose the war and throw their medal over a fence, in which case it’s OK to lie about them and smear their reputation; otherwise it’s always been kind of an accepted chestnut that you don’t talk smack about the military to Republicans.
So maybe he stepped in the quicksand here. But I think it’s worth wondering: What if he didn’t? What if, that is, he doesn’t plummet in the polls? What if the near-universal presumption in the political media that this is the beginning of the end winds up being more about media presumptions about how the GOP base thinks than, you know, how that base actually thinks? I believe there’s a sporting enough chance that this is the case that it’s certainly worth a column, so here I go.
Let’s start here. What’s brought Trump to the top of the GOP heap? Obviously, it’s his relentless and unhinged caterwauling about immigration. Some punditry I’ve noticed has tried to sugarcoat this, or note Trump’s universal name recognition. But he had universal name recognition when he was at 5 percent. Two weeks of talk about Mexican rapists and this alleged plot of the Mexican government to “send us” all their criminals has vaulted him to the top of the Republican field. As I write this, in fact, the new ABC/Washington Post poll, which was taken Thursday through Sunday, has Trump with 24 percent of the vote, compared to 13 percent for Walker and 12 percent for Bush.
There is no mystery here. Conservative Republican base voters hate undocumented immigration as much as they hate anything. So many hot buttons get pushed. So Trump couldn’t have chosen a better issue. But it hasn’t been just the issue; it’s the blunt way he talks about it. Because he is being so flagrantly and (to the base’s eyes) delightfully anti-politically correct. He’s rubbing the shit in everybody’s face, right up into their nostrils. They love this.
So that’s that. But now this primal urge collides head on with another one, the deep pro-military bias among these kinds of voters. This ardor is longer held, and it is more easily and widely understood by, oh, political reporters, for example. But is it definitely stronger than the anti-immigrant ardor?
The answer is, we don’t know. I would argue that fear and loathing are generally better motivators in politics than love and enthusiasm, so I’d say yes, anti-immigrant anger probably trumps, so to speak, pro-military passion.
But let’s say I’m wrong about that for the sake of argument. Even so, the assumption that Trump’s comment will kill him itself seems to rest on an assumption: that pro-military passion equals and is indistinguishable from pro-John McCain fervor. And that is what I’m not sure is the case at all.
Now, it might be the case that because of Trump’s exact phrasing (“I like people that weren’t captured”) his statement can be universalized from McCain to every veteran who was captured. If it plays out like that, maybe Trump has big problems. But if this is just a Trump vs. McCain thing, it’s not hard to see how Trump could skate through.
First of all, McCain is yesterday’s news. He’s a month away from turning 80. He’s certainly still relevant as a senator, but that isn’t the question. The question is whether an attack on him incites the GOP base to rise up in his defense. A very open question. Remember, the base voters didn’t like him much in 2008. He had to put Sarah Palin on his ticket to assuage them.
If Trump had disparaged Iraq war veterans as a group, or the U.S. military as a thing, then sure, he’d probably be cooked. But that isn’t what he did. He mocked a particular human being—and, at that, a human being whose relationship to the base is complicated. Even now, McCain is already facing a declared primary challenge, assuming he seeks reelection in 2016, from a right-wing state senator who wants you to join her in “not just go[ing] along with the Beltway crowd.”
So here’s my prediction, and if I’m wrong, it won’t be the first time or the last, but: I think Trump will lose about three points over this. And I think even that small diminution will happen less because “he attacked a war hero” than because “he’s an out-of-control person who really just isn’t the kind of guy who ought to be a major-party presidential nominee.” He is of course going to say more crazy things along these crazy lines, and eventually, as I’ve written before, his act is going to get tired.
But I say it’s going to take more than this for Trump to fall. The press underestimates the intensity of the conservative base’s feelings on immigration, and it always has. Why isn’t immigration reform law, after 68 senators voted for it (including 14 Republicans) in 2013, and given that we know almost to a certainty that it could have passed the House any day that John Boehner might have chosen to let it come to a vote? The answer: It isn’t law because of the GOP base, period. The Judases who voted for it would all have received primary challenges, and Boehner would have been dumped as speaker.
The lessons here go beyond Trump. A poll of Latinos came out last week that was just terrible for Republicans. The strongest Republican against Hillary Clinton? Jeb Bush (yep, more than Marco Rubio, by a couple points). But let’s make that “strongest,” with irony quotes, because Jeb’s number was 27 percent, which is exactly what Mitt Romney got in 2012.
So nothing in the GOP has changed, and Bush can speak Spanish exclusively for the next few months, and very little is going to change. The GOP’s larger problem, then, isn’t Trump. It’s the people supporting him.