For a long time, Republican leaders who might have known better have helped to enable the 10-car pileup in human form that is Donald J. Trump.
During the 2012 campaign, eventual GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney courted and then publicly accepted Trump’s endorsement, just months after the man who makes his name from taking and generating umbrage had led a campaign trying to prove the country's president wasn’t really an American.
Though the trend has started to change, national-level Republicans with their own political ambitions largely have been slow to criticize Trump ever since, terrified they might irritate the small but rabid fan base that has managed to launch the most unpopular candidate in the field into the realm of nominal frontrunner.
With no one daring to do much to slow down the novice politician who is known for indulging in conspiracy theory, fact-free alarmism and the occasional sprinkling of weird pop cultural commentary, Trump has gladly accepted invitations from groups ranging to take his circus act on the road at conservative conferences and early-state GOP confabs, all of which have placed him at the head of the adults’ table.
As Trump has railed ever more incoherently and offensively in a manner that threatens to jeopardize the party’s brand more than just about any other wildcard at play this election cycle, his biggest critics in private have tended to be the most quiet in public. The idea among many of the leading Republicans who have helped enable him is that Trump would be less dangerous inside of the tent than outside of it.
But with Trump now dominating headlines and appearing in no mood to fade into obscurity, the Republican Party has a problem on its hands the size of a decaying Atlantic City casino brandishing a famous five-letter surname.
Trump is all but certain to make the cut when Fox News invites the top 10 GOP candidates -- based on an average of the five most recent national polls -- to appear at the first 2016 presidential debate in Cleveland next month.
As the party works more broadly to promote a more inclusionary brand, all eyes will continue to focus on the man who famously took the opportunity in his announcement speech to decry Mexican migrants as “rapists.”
RNC Committeeman Steve Duprey was among those who argued in favor of a model that would have let every major GOP candidate participate in the debates via two separate “pools” or, barring that, would have relied on early state polling rather than national surveys to determine the debate’s entrants. But even Duprey acknowledged there is nothing that can be done now to mitigate Trump’s latest impending publicity boon, which may once again come at the expense of the Republican brand.
“Even though I strongly disagree with Donald Trump’s views on immigration -- I think they’re the antitheses of what the party of Lincoln should stand for -- he has certainly qualified, based on the criteria our media partners set, to be on that stage,” Duprey said. “He’s earned it. And fair is fair.”
But just because they have to share a debate stage with him, doesn’t mean the other GOP candidates have to treat Trump as an equal.
In past presidential election cycles, out-of-the-mainstream candidates like Ron Paul and Alan Keyes have served as convenient debate stage foils to the contenders who had real designs on the White House. But there is always an inherent risk for any of the serious candidates to be seen as punching down -- particularly when the target of their downward blows would relish nothing more than an ensuing reality TV-style, spittle-filled shouting match.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is among the hardline conservatives in the race who have already telegraphed their method in co-opting Trump: embracing him fully.
Cruz has said he is “proud to stand” with the man he describes as “terrific.”
“I don’t know that his approach to Mr. Trump is unique,” Cruz spokesperson Rick Tyler told The Huffington Post. “He has been nothing but complementary to all the Republican candidates.”
Cruz may have calculated that he cannot afford to offend the people who are bolstering Trump’s candidacy, but private conversations with strategists working for other Republican candidates reveal that while there is no consensus on the best way to approach having to debate Trump, some agree it is better to engage with him than to try ignoring him, given that he's proven impossible for the nation to tune out.
This provides an opening for Trump's GOP rivals who might be inclined to undermine him a particularly cutting and memorable line -- one that may alienate Trump’s supporters but will also rally the clear and consistent majority of Republican voters who say they’d never even consider voting for him.
Republican strategist Kevin Madden, who advised Romney during his 2008 and 2012 presidential runs, said that while some of his colleagues argue it would be a tactical mistake to engage with Trump and thereby give him the attention he wants, the opportunity to “draw a sharp contrast between celebrity and leadership” is one that should not be missed.
“The main risk is that Trump is ungoverned by any sense of embarrassment, in the sense that he doesn't care about looking bad as part of some fact-free shouting match he may get into with another candidate,” Madden said. “[But] in a field of 15 or 16, being the first to confront Trump could provide a great chance to start locking down that larger part of the primary electorate that knows Trump is bad for the party and who care about winning in November of next year.”