Excerpt from: The New Yorker
MARCH 4, 2016
NO One Here Can Save The G.O.P.
BY BENJAMIN WALLACE-WELLS
What took place among the remaining Republican Presidential candidates at the Fox Theatre, in Detroit, last night was not a debate, not in any specific sense of the word. It was darker, lustier, and more momentous than that. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz dropped any pretense of presenting cases for their own candidacies, or contesting each other’s, and focussed instead on discrediting Trump. Fox News’s Megyn Kelly gestured only briefly at evenhandedness before presenting a devastating montage of Trump taking contradictory positions on the central issues of the campaign, often within days of one another, and an even more devastating account of the Trump University scam and the fraud lawsuit against the Party’s Presidential front-runner. “A minor civil case,” Trump said. The scene around him was medieval. There were reports that fifty audience members had been ejected for being drunk and disruptive. The rest cheered most loudly for Trump’s promise to subject alleged terrorists to more extreme forms of torture. Jamie Johnson, who had been a senior aide in the Rick Perry campaign, tweeted, midway through, “My party is committing suicide on national television.”
This has been the week of open civil war within the Republican Party, and it culminated yesterday morning when Mitt Romney, the Party’s last Presidential nominee, gave a speech denouncing Trump in the harshest terms he could muster: the candidate is “playing the American people for suckers,” he said. John McCain, the prior nominee, then called Trump “dangerous.” Some of the Party’s sharpest ascendant political operators—among them the conservative Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse and the moderate Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker—announced that they would not vote for Trump if he were the nominee. But, for all the frictional heat of the “Never Trump” movement, it has neither settled on a candidate nor committed to a cause. Romney did not announce whether he himself would run, nor did he offer any specific support for Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich. Neither did Sasse, Baker, or McCain. “The battle for the soul of the GOP is now a battle for the soul of the Right,” the editor of National Review declared a few weeks ago. But, if that is the case, on one side of the battle there is a profound void. The energy in the anti-Trump camp is real enough. But what is it fighting for?
Sometimes the most revealing questions are the most obvious ones. “We are here in Detroit,” Fox’s Bret Baier said, coming back from commercial last night, and, directing his question to Rubio, he described the horror unfolding in Flint, Michigan, which was forced to source its drinking water from a river filled with lead. The Floridian—the most empathic of all the Republican candidates, the one whose campaign has been organized around the collapse of the American Dream—seemed not to have considered the situation at all. Feeling his way toward an answer, he turned to politics: Rubio said that the Democrats should not be “politicizing” the situation, presumably by assigning blame to Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder. Cruz, for his part, claimed that Detroit “has been utterly decimated by sixty years of failed left-wing policy.” (If this were a less frantic and florid moment, this morning we would be scrutinizing the racial context of that history.) The actual human suffering in Flint went unacknowledged.
This may be where the youth of Rubio and Cruz, both forty-four, matters. The senators were sent to Washington in 2010 and 2012, respectively, which means that their entire national political careers have taken place within the cocoon of the Tea Party era. Their Presidential rivals have sometimes lamented that neither has been a governor, but, really, neither has spent much time governing. For the past six years, their Party has been focussed on the rhetoric of legislative obstruction and the intensely felt melodrama of whether the establishment or the outsiders can claim the mantle of conservatism. This is an inside game, and both Cruz and Rubio have learned to play it exceptionally well: Cruz by committing to an unrelenting factional war, and Rubio by deftly anticipating which heresies the Party’s elders would tolerate and which they would not. But, beneath this intramural feuding, and often obscured by it, was the actual experience of the country. The greatly felt rupture in the nation now is economic inequality, which Cruz has barely mentioned and which Rubio has met with inspiring words and a proposal to zero out the capital-gains tax. Whatever happened in Flint slid quietly under their radar.
The hard new fact that the Republican Party is confronting is not Trump, who last night looked more vulnerable than he has since his campaign began. It is instead Trump’s voters. “Millions and millions of people have come to the Republican Party over the last little while,” Trump pointed out, in closing last night, and that is in some sense true: they have come for him. For all the deeply felt horror from the Republicans across the spectrum over Trump’s ideological variability, and the crass and volatile strains in his personality, and the extremity of his xenophobia and economic nationalism, none of his rivals has offered much to the voters Trump has brought in. None, really, seemed to perceive the actual experience of the voters who are backing Trump. As apocalyptic as it seemed, Detroit last night was not the final scene in the nominating contest. But it did seem like a fitting conclusion to the much longer arc of the great fraternal fight over who can claim the mantle of conservatism. Neither side has won that fight. It has just grown bigger and bigger, until it consumed the Party, and blotted out all else.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells began contributing to The New Yorker in 2007, and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2015. He writes mainly about American politics and