WASHINGTON – It has been amusing to watch the brands – the PGA, NBC, Macy’s, NASCAR, Univision, Serta – flee Donald Trump after his xenophobic remarks. Who even knew the Donald had a line of mattresses featuring Cool Action Dual Effects Gel Memory Foam?
But there is one entity that can’t dump Trump, no matter how hard it tries: the GOP, because Trump is the Republican Party.
One big Republican donor this week floated to the Associated Press the idea of having candidates boycott debates if the tycoon is onstage. Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham and other candidates have lined up to say, as Rick Perry put it, that “Donald Trump does not represent the Republican Party.”
But Trump has merely held up a mirror to the GOP. The man, long experience has shown, believes in nothing other than himself. He has, conveniently, selected the issues that Republicans want to hear about – or at least a significant proportion of Republican primary voters. He may be saying things more colorfully than others when he talks about Mexico sending rapists across the border, but his views show that, far from being an outlier, he is hitting all the erogenous zones of the GOP electorate.
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Anti-immigrant? Against Common Core education standards? For repealing Obamacare? Against same-sex marriage? Anti-abortion? Anti-tax? Anti-China? Virulent in questioning President Obama’s legitimacy? Check, check, check, check, check, check, check and check.
Does anybody suppose Trump really cares about illegal immigration (which helps his construction interests by suppressing wages) or about defending traditional marriage (he’s had three)?
And we don’t need to suppose: We can look back at what he did and said in 1999, when he was flirting with a run for the Reform Party presidential nomination and I accompanied him on a swing through Southern California.
I flew on his 727 with the winged “T” on the tail and the mirrored headboard on the bed, and I learned all about his prospective platform: progressive on social issues such as gays in the military, for campaign finance reform and universal health care, in favor of more regulation, opposed to investing Social Security money in the stock market. Most of all, he preached tolerance – contrasting himself with Pat Buchanan, his rival for the nomination, who had made statements considered anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant.
Buchanan at the time had been talking about criminals entering illegally from Mexico. He said other politicians were afraid that “if they speak out against illegal immigration and they speak out against the crimes that are being committed, suddenly they’ll be considered insensitive, or they say, ‘We might lose the Hispanic vote.’”
Trump back then issued a statement saying he hates intolerance because in New York, “a town with different races, religions and peoples, I have learned to work with my brother man.” I accompanied him as he underscored the point by touring the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
“He seems to be a racist,” Trump said of Buchanan.
Now Trump is the one talking about Mexico sending us drugs, crime and rapists. His shift is hardly surprising given his audience – and his competitors. Scott Walker talks about self-deportation, Graham talks about ending birthright citizenship, Ben Carson blames illegal immigrants in part for the measles outbreak, Rand Paul describes as lawbreakers those who were brought to the United States illegally as children, and even relatively moderate candidates such as Bush and Marco Rubio have hardened their immigration positions. Ted Cruz actually praised Trump.
Trump’s position also closely follows those that came from Arizona in 2010 when then-Gov. Jan Brewer and other Republicans attempted an immigration crackdown. They spoke about illegal immigrants on the border as a source of beheadings, kidnappings and police killings.
The previously tolerant Trump may be a phony, but he’s no dope: He recognized that his name recognition would take him far if he merely voiced, in his bombastic style, the positions GOP voters craved. The mogul’s broader basket of issues is also in tune with those of a slate of candidates who have compared homosexuality to alcoholism (Perry), likened union protesters to the Islamic State (Walker) and proposed elections for Supreme Court justices (Cruz), and who virtually all oppose same-sex marriage and action on climate change.
It worked. Trump placed second in national polls by Fox News and CNN, virtually guaranteeing him a place in the first debate, on Aug. 6 – unless the GOP persuades Fox News, the host, to dump Trump.
That would be hard to justify. Trump may be a monster, but he’s the monster Republicans created.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.