Let’s get two things out of the way. First, I disagree with Donald Trump on most issues. Second, I don’t think he’ll be elected president, even if he does win the Republican nomination.
But I’m having trouble buying the idea that Trump is the “crazy one” in this year’s gaggle of GOP candidates. It’s amusing to watch men like Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, both of whom oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest, or Jeb Bush, who has proposed shaming women who have children out of wedlock, slam Trump for what they think was a sexist jibe at Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. It’s no less entertaining to witness Republicans descending on Trump for hitting McCain’s stature as a war hero, when they did the same thing to John Kerry in 2004. The list goes on.
If anything, Trump is possibly the most liberal conservative the GOP has seen in decades. Josh Barro has referred to him as a “moderate Republican,” and others have highlighted his progressive past. This is a man who was pro-choice until recently. He supportedsingle-payer healthcare, even acknowledging in the first GOP debate how well it works in Scotland and Canada. As recently as 2012 — 2012! — he praised Hillary Clinton effusively as a “terrific woman” doing “a good job” and is a good friend of her husband, whose foundation he has donated to generously. On foreign policy, he has strongly opposed the Iraq war since a year after it began.
Now, he is anti-choice, anti-single-payer, and says Hillary Clinton is a criminal. Why is he flip-flopping on so many of his positions in such an obvious way? I, for one, think it’s deliberate.
Donald Trump is an immensely successful businessman and reality television star who knows how to read his audience, play to the camera, and get huge ratings. He seems to have recognized the audience he has to win over, and has fully embraced a painful truth that most other Republican leaders are still in denial about: the Republican party has been taken over by racists, bigots, and angry, semi-educated people who are blindly anti-establishment without even knowing what the establishment is all about. (Remember “Keep the government out of my Medicare”?)
Knowing this, he plays to their sentiment to secure his chances of clinching the nomination. As for his TV audiences, he senses what they want, and delivers in droves. That’s not to say that his birther-ism or his hard-right views on immigration aren’t sincere. But the truth is, you have to say the kinds of things Trump is saying to win the Republican primary. The proof? Everything he’s doing is working. Look at the polls — he still leads by a wide margin in nearly every one of them. The debate, the “blood” comment, the John McCain slur — none of these things have been able to derail that. If anything, it’s quite the opposite: conservative voters love it.
Let’s say he wins the Republican nomination. What happens in the general election? Will he keep up the blowhard persona or tone it down?
Consider what his Apprentice protégé Omarosa said about Trump’s ability to adapt to his environment:
“One of the most interesting things about Donald Trump is how incredibly smart he is and how he kind of learns as he goes. You can see he’s making modifications to his style as he goes through this thing.”
We’ve certainly seen that with all the flip-flopping. And as she points out, he is adept at adapting right there in the moment. Note how he deflected a perfectly legitimate (and potentially damaging) question from Kelly on his derogatory comments about women by making it all about Rosie O’Donnell, with whom he’s had a well-publicized feud. He knows better than anyone that celebrity feuds sell, evidenced by the deafening applause he received for his comment. Later, this became a feud with Kelly herself, and then with Fox News in general. The media coverage? Off the charts. The original question? Irrevocably lost in the din.
Keeping all this in mind, there’s no reason to believe he won’t “adapt” again in the general election. If he gets the nomination, likely going up against Hillary Clinton, I’m going to predict he dials down the bluster a bit, and even though he may not completely flip-flop back to his original socially liberal positions (which he’s shamelessly done several times in full public view), he’ll become more equivocal about them, or altogether underplay them. Instead of staying mired in the tiresome debate about the social issues that so many Republicans are obsessed with (abortion, same-sex marriage, and so on), he’ll make it about the economy, infrastructure, trade, and his neocon-ish view of foreign policy. Of course, as the Republican nominee, his party will have no choice but to support him.
In this way, Trump could redefine the Republican Party to again become what it once used to be — that is, something beyond the idiocy of the trans-vaginal ultrasounds and Bible-thumping homophobia we see today. In the end, whether he wins or loses, the result could be a return to how things were pre-Karl Rove, when the differences between the parties were ideological, not intellectual; when Ronald Reagan won 49 states out of 50 back in 1984; when you could avidly disagree with people like Reagan, George Bush, Sr., Henry Kissinger, and Paul Wolfowitz, but you knew you couldn’t question their intelligence — a far cry from the intellectually compromised Palins, Santorums, Perrys, and Cruzes that have risen to become the face of the party today.
Now, you could argue that Trump also belongs in the latter group. I would disagree. Trump is not a stupid man. He has a stellar academic record, is an astute and wildly successful businessman, knows how to create hit TV shows, and most importantly, really knows how to play to the public, get everyone interested, and win support even as he blatantly flip-flops or says outrageous things that would definitively end the campaign of any other political candidate.
So it’s not surprising that some think he has been “planted” to help Dems win. This is highly unlikely. But it’s not inconceivable that he is an old-school conservative who wants to take the party back to what it once used to be. To use a little Trumpspeak, the Republican Party has recently become infested with a lot of really dumb people, and again, the proof of that is in Trump’s success. He has recognized this, and is unabashedly playing to it. That’s the adaptability factor. And if he actually wins the nomination, it would be surprising if he didn’t change course somewhat in the general election as well.
Deep down, the Fox News folks know this. They were brutal to him in the debate, and they are not happy with the success of his candidacy. Megyn Kelly was on to something when she asked him, “When did you actually become a Republican?”
Fox News has helped create the extremist elements of the Republican Party we’ve seen over the last decade or more — and now that a former Democrat (or so he claims) has tapped into it and is actually using it to his advantage, it has come back to haunt them. How do you earn the admiration of the angry, xenophobic, paranoid monster that Fox News created over the years? Do exactly what Donald Trump is doing today.
Of course, you may think this entire article is insane. How could this man — who still hasn’t backed off his birther beliefs and who recently unveiled a repugnant position paper on immigration — possibly be moving the party forward? The answer: it’s all relative. Taken on their own, these positions may seem extreme, but compared to what mainstream Congressional Republicans have been up to already, they’re really not that much different.
In the current climate, even a small step forward from the status quo is progress for the GOP. That, and an all-but-guaranteed Democratic win in the general election, are great reasons for progressives to support Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.
Originally published on The Huffington Post.