He has company.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump Isn't a GOP Lone Wolf

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The Republican Party elite wishes to quarantine Donald Trump like a contagious virus. Partisan helpmates at Fox News made a valiant effort last night: The first question of the prime-time debate was designed to isolate Trump not only from the other candidates onstage, but also from the entire party.

Fox moderator Bret Baier asked the candidates whether they would pledge to support the Republican nominee. Only one candidate’s loyalty was in question, and sure enough, Trump refused to take the oath. Baier then spelled out -- slowly, deliberately -- the consequences of that refusal.

Baier: Mr. Trump to be clear, you're standing on a Republican primary debate stage.
Trump: I fully understand.
Baier: The place where the RNC will give the nominee the nod.
Trump: I fully understand.
Baier: And that experts say an independent run would almost certainly hand the race over to Democrats and likely another Clinton.

Having begun the debate by accusing Trump of ministering at the coronation of the party’s arch-enemy, the Fox panelists proceeded to ask Trump questions about embarrassing past remarks and actions. The process of disqualification was impressively focused. But it had a couple of hitches: First, Trump isn't easily humiliated. Second, Ted Cruz keeps telling Republican audiences that Trump is right.

“I believe the American people are looking for someone to speak the truth. If you're looking for someone to go to Washington, to go along to get along, to get -- to agree with the career politicians in both parties who get in bed with the lobbyists and special interests, then I ain't your guy.”

That wasn’t Trump talking. It was Cruz. In answering a question about his own differences with party leaders, Cruz sounded like a twangier Trump. It’s hard to portray Trump as a lone wolf when the Republican senator from Texas keeps treating him like the head of the pack. 

Trump makes little distinction between Democratic morons and Republican losers, which makes it easy to explain why he won’t commit to serving a party rather than himself. But how much does Trump’s analysis of Washington power divided between losers and morons really differ from Cruz’s laments about the perfidy of Democratic Sodom and Republican Gomorrah? “We got a Republican House, we've got a Republican Senate, and we don't have leaders who honor their commitments,” Cruz complained.

Cruz ratifies, implicitly or explicitly, just about every damning remark that flows from Trump. The effect is further magnified when Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky trashes Republican foreign policy or former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee lays big government at the door of the financiers bankrolling the candidacies of Jeb Bush and other establishment figures.

“The problem is we have a Wall Street-to-Washington access of power that has controlled the political climate,” Huckabee said last night. “The donor class feeds the political class who does the dance that the donor class wants. And the result is federal government keeps getting bigger.”

Trump is not alone. He has wingmen working the same resentments that he does. After all, those resentments were first nurtured by the party elite and the TV network now working to ease Trump out of the tent. Trump showed last night that he's unlikely to be dispatched by the news media. And the nine other candidates on the prime-time stage showed how reluctant they are to cross him. 

It’s not hard to imagine this reaching a crisis. Trump acknowledged that his lack of party loyalty, and the threat of an independent run, gives him “a lot of leverage.” Isolating and discrediting him while keeping him inside the tent is going to be an immensely tricky proposition. (If Trump doesn’t self-destruct, the task will probably be outsourced, eventually, to an anonymous entity funding brutal attack ads. Meanwhile, party leaders will maintain a polite façade.)

Each day that Trump is on the leader board, it gets harder to discredit him as a fringe phenomenon. And with Cruz echoing Trump’s contempt for all things establishment -- as moderator Chris Wallace highlighted, Cruz has called Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell a liar -- and Huckabee and Paul concurring here and there, Trumpism may even begin to look as if it has some legs.

That doesn’t mean Trump will get the nomination. But the longer Republican voters remain attracted to Trump, the more difficult it will be for them to move from Trump’s exciting demolition derby to Bush’s staid parade. You might prefer a loser for president over a moron, but it’s a dreary choice when you had high hopes for a superhero.

In one of the network’s jabs at Trump, Fox moderator Megyn Kelly asked Bush if it was true, as reported, that he had denigrated Trump during a conversation with a party donor. Bush denied it, saying only that he regretted Trump’s divisiveness.

Trump said he appreciated Bush’s response. “He is a true gentleman,” Trump said. “He really is.” It sounded like a compliment. And in elections past it would have been. But Cruz could surely tell you, as Trump supporters understand, that “gentleman” is just another word for “loser.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net