Imagine you’re a professional Republican strategist. You’re a well-read right-wing Republican ideologue, even an intellectual. You subscribe to Reason, a right-wing libertarian magazine. You hold Ayn Rand in high esteem. You have a very principled opposition to state intervention in the economy. You believe fervently in free markets. You are a staunch defender of the second amendment. You really believe that the Republican Party, which over the years has been moving further and further in your direction, can win the next general election if only it will nominate a true conservative who holds true conservative free-market values. No more McCains and Romneys.
And the time is right. There is widespread dissatisfaction with Obama. That dissatisfaction has generated passion and engagement. Many in the party’s base are Birthers who believe Obama is a Kenyan-born socialist bent on destroying the country. You know that’s not true, of course, and even that it’s born of a deep-seated racism. You are not yourself a racist, but you don’t want to alienate your volatile base by denouncing the Birthers. And you understand the demographic angst of the white middle and working classes. The slogan “We want our country back” actually means “We want to put those uppity, arrogant Negroes back in their place.” These are people who have never in their hearts accepted the term “African American.” At the same time, you know that given the real demographic changes that are the source of that angst, the party can’t only go so far down the racist road. You need to win some of that growing Hispanic vote, for example. But the party faithful can always be weaned off racism later. Right now passionate opposition to Obama, even if it’s based on racism, is helpful. Hillary is the beloved of the minority voters, so fear of immigrants and hatred of minorities are all to the good too, at least during the primary season. It helps generate passionate opposition to Hillary.
So who is leading your large field of contenders for the nomination? None other than Donald Trump, a man who over the years has advocated government healthcare, a ban on assault weapons, and a woman’s right to an abortion. Trump has donated thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton. He once called George W. Bush incompetent and evil and said that he was the worst president in the history of the country. But now Trump has come over to your side, and he’s leading.
But he hasn’t come over to embrace your ideological purities; he’s come over to reap what you have sown in the garden of racist xenophobia and free-floating hatred of blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and immigrants. His policy pronouncements are mostly incoherent. When he isn’t demonizing some visible minority, making lewd offensive remarks about women, or mocking the physically handicapped, he’s talking about himself and how smart and great he is. Trump’s narcissism makes Mussolini look sensitive and empathetic. Trump’s is a populism that isn’t anti-government; it’s just pro-Trump.
To make matters worse, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, of all things, might plausibly start appealing to Trump supporters with socialist solutions to their real problems. Hillary Clinton is almost certain to win the Democratic nomination, but some unforeseen shocker event—some new revelation about her emails, for example—could give the nomination to Sanders. Not very long ago, a convicted child molester had a better chance of winning the nomination than a socialist . But if Trump is the Republican nominee, even the socialist Sanders will beat him. And in fact, by now Trump may have done so much damage to the Republican Party with minority voters that no Republican can win.
So the right-wing thrust of the GOP from Reagan through the Tea Party to the Freedom Caucus has all come to this: A socialist could actually win the next election. Now that’s a Republican strategist’s nightmare.