It sounds ridiculous, I know. The Grand Old Party, the party of Lincoln, could never want Donald Trump. Everybody knows that the ‘elite' wants Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush. Trump, with his crazy brew of vulgar populism and economic nationalism, is not their guy.
The trouble is, as I wrote in my Spectator piece this week, Trumpmania has been knocking the Republican National Committee’s preferences flat — and the establishment candidates are doing a brilliant job of cancelling each other out. Some party bigwigs are therefore coming to terms with the idea of Trump. Major players behind Romney’s 2012 campaign are now reportedly 'trying to find their way into Trump’s orbit’. And Trump himself has been showing off about how the establishment is 'warming up’ to him.
For the GOP elite, the real nightmare is not Trump but Ted Cruz — at the moment, the only person who looks capable of stopping ‘The Donald’. Cruz is widely loathed in the party ranks. As Trump so helpfully pointed out this week, Cruz is a 'nasty guy … nobody likes him.'
It’s not just Cruz’s personality that troubles the elite, though. Cruz represents what David Brooks has called the 'counter-establishment’. The coalition which the Cruz campaign has assembled — a confused-yet-powerful mix of Tea Party-types, evangelicals, and other disparate conservative forces in American society — is far more threatening than Trump’s bonkers insurgency.
Which is why Senator Bob Dole, the 92-year-old establishment warhorse, this week warned of ‘cataclysmic’ consequences for the party if it elected Cruz. He called Cruz an ‘extremist’ and said ‘our party is not that far right’. Donald Trump, on the other hand, could 'probably work with Congress, because he’s, you know, he’s got the right personality and he’s kind of a deal-maker.'
Donald Trump, then, is a man with whom the GOP establishment can do business. For some of the Republican topbrass, he has ‘the right personality’ to be president. His obvious lack of convictions, which surveys say is his weakest point as a candidate, is for them a virtue. There’s electoral reasoning here, too: polls suggest Trump would fare better than Cruz against Hillary Clinton.
The drift towards Trump acceptance must be disturbing for lots of conservatives in America — no doubt it prompted the National Review, the still influential conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley, to issue its ‘Against Trump’ cover this week — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Cruz, for his part, sees opportunity in the alignment of Trump and the elite. 'We're seeing the Washington establishment abandoning Marco Rubio and unifying behind Donald Trump,' he said this week, the obvious implication being that he is the real outsider candidate.
How will Trump handle this line of attack? Will he start trying to turn himself into a more conventional candidate and thus endanger his maverick status? Or will he try to out-outsider Cruz? Will the Republican nomination race boil down to two men repeatedly shouting ‘you’re the establishment!’ at each other? What a pickle the GOP is in.