By this time tomorrow, the slumped figures of the walking dead may well clutter the Republican landscape. If so, the cause of death will look a lot like assisted suicide.
The GOP's Kevorkian is, of course, Donald Trump. This is not because he is a political colossus. Far from it, Trump is the luckiest candidate alive, not least because his opponents, and the party, have worked overtime to create him.
He could not have done this on his own. Time and again, he has played the bumptious idiot -- trashing women, ridiculing a disabled reporter, whining about mistreatment, making misstatement after misstatement and, in South Carolina, turning in the worst debate performance in memory. He has excoriated John McCain and George W. Bush and, God help us, rebuked the Pope. He lives from insult to insult, each more juvenile than the last.
As a candidate, he grows worse by the day. Over the weekend, he initially refused to disavow support from the vile racist David Duke and the KKK, claiming ignorance of what they stand for. He retweeted a quote from Benito Mussolini. He suggested disqualifying the Hispanic judge presiding over a suit against his bogus "Trump University" -- apparently for being Hispanic. Instead of claiming the higher ground of a front runner, he brayed fresh venom at his reeling opposition, lowering the depths of a campaign that is ever more degrading to his party and his country.
In eight months since entering the race, he has learned nothing. His platform, such as it is, packages the ludicrous with the politically blasphemous, scorning both reality and GOP orthodoxy. His promise to "make America great again" shreds the inclusiveness that is the essence of our greatness. His proposals to ban all Muslims, wall off Mexico and deport 11 million illegal immigrants combine the unconstitutional and unachievable with appeals to racial and religious animosity. His willful ignorance of governance and policy is the frightening foretaste of a floundering presidency dangerously lacking in direction or even dignity -- a reality driven home in Thursday's debate. By now he should have been political roadkill, a long-dead skunk in the GOP's rear view mirror.
Instead, he is the party's all too likely nominee. So how did this happen?
Start with the petri dish of resentment that is the Republican Party. For years, the party establishment has propitiated evangelicals, Tea Party enthusiasts, and other fearful and angry white folks by tolerating a toxic brew of empty promises and rhetorical nihilism that filled the GOP base with mindless rage. Enter Donald Trump.
By accident or instinct, he discovered that the party had served him up the perfect audience: modestly educated, low-information voters who feel betrayed by government and the social and financial elites. For such voters, Trump's castigation of Muslims, immigrants and free trade is an intoxicating political cocktail. Beyond that, his post-modern sans culottes don't much care what else he says; they just want their nativist would-be strongman to demolish the established order.
Thus, to their astonishment, Republicans have watched Trump build a cult of personality that transcends ideology or experience. His mindless bluster against his chosen foes fills his legions with a visceral pleasure. Such is their hatred of the establishment that they hear any critique of Trump as another condescending message from the despised elites. They follow Trump's abusive tweets with abusive tweets of their own, often filled with libelous virulence. They are impervious to reason, indifferent to policy, immune to fact. They don't want to think; they want to feel.
Crucial to this phenomenon was the GOP's failure to perceive that the broadcast media was enabling Trump to build an uncritical mass following, making him ever harder to take down. Here, again, Trump was lucky and also shrewd: shamelessly avid for ratings, cable news gave him priceless months of free media, a seemingly endless infomercial for his siren song of self. With the honorable exception of Fox News, his debate interrogators largely extended his free ride, even as morning chat shows built him into a political Wizard of Oz. It became all too clear that Trump would ride this adulatory wave unimpeded unless Republicans launched a forceful counter narrative.
But they remained passive -- no doubt, at least in part, because they feared alienating Trump's followers in the base, an ever-swelling cadre filled with the unreasoning rage the party had stoked for years. Months ago, two respected GOP professionals solicited the party's big-money donors help take to the airwaves against Trump, and were turned down cold. Instead, the GOP elite chose to play ostrich, hoping to stick their collective head up some lucky day to discover Trump's corpse without their fingerprints on it. So fond were they of this delusion that they clung to it as his poll numbers rose and the time for action dwindled by the week.
This was a grave mistake. For just as Trump was made-for-TV, he was built to facilitate his own destruction, amplified by the very media which helped create him. Here, Megan Kelly should have been a role model, as Trump's oh-so- telling decision to flee the second Fox debate confirmed. Quite obviously, he is a candidate prone to crack under pressure -- a classic thin-skinned bully who becomes verbally incontinent when attacked, combining ignorant and narcissistic rants with whiny complaints that invite exhaustion and disgust. A skilled and resolute opponent could have dismantled him before he got too big to fail.
Yet until Thursday's debate, the also-rans instead focused on killing each other off -- hopeful that Trump would blow himself up unassisted, fearful that his gift for the unrestrained counter thrust would make them figures of fun. But the conventional wisdom that Trump would crash and burn assumed resolute opponents armed with pointed attacks and negative advertising, pounding away until self-involvement and self-pity brought him down. It seemed borderline inconceivable that, presented with the juicy feast that is Donald Trump, the GOP's carnivores would become vegetarians.
If not vegans. Instead of throttling Trump in the cradle, his rivals imagined emerging from the overcrowded field as the party's surviving white knight, some lingering past their sell by date. Mired in wishful thinking, they left Trump untouched for far too long. As of the South Carolina primary, of the many millions spent on advertising by his opponents, only 4 percent of ads targeted Trump. Now he is dominant -- their money has been spent, and their attacks have come too late.
What could have been was apparent on Thursday. When his opponents came after him at last, he looked like a blowhard with a dubious past whose only riposte is name-calling. All that survived was the vaulting ego that drives him to seek an office for which he is unfit.
This savaging should have started in the third debate, not the tenth -- relentless attacks on Trump's knowledge and character, supplemented by mass advertising directed at a single theme: this man should not be president. Last fall, this could have worked. But now his base of support has solidified as it grows, his purchase on the nomination ever more assured. In their belated aggression, Trump's opponents conjured the party's most horrific nightmare -- what Hillary Clinton and the Democrats will do to him in the fall,
A related mistake within the party was to misread Trump's appeal in the age of entertainment -- the assumption that Trump and his trappings were too exotic for the Republican base. But exotic feeds fantasy. What exhausted worker wouldn't want to escape on their own private jet? Who, pray tell, was the audience for Fifty Shades of Grey? So why suppose that ordinary Republicans would find Melania, Ivanka and the two preppy but gun toting boys unthinkable in the White House?
The GOP elites may not watch reality TV, but millions do -- including The Apprentice. And, for older folks, the Trump melange may evoke nostalgia for the cast of Dynasty or Dallas, with an updated JR Ewing promising to bring American jobs back by steamrolling the Chinese.
Which brings us to a final demographic irony. It was widely assumed that Trump's aromatic personal life would alienate evangelical voters. But Trump has stumbled on a larger truth -- a great many rank and file evangelicals are less godly than prey to the resentments shared by the other white folks who dominate the GOP.
In retrospect, this should not be a surprise. The evangelical Jesus has always been a distinctly right-wing savior -- a gun loving, ferociously nativist tax cutter for whom English is the first and only language. Now the truth is out -- in threatening times, salvation may mean less than temporal fears and resentments.
As Ted Cruz is learning fast.
The struggle of Trump's chief "outsider" rival highlights the ultimate ingredient of his good fortune -- the weaknesses of his rivals. "This guy is sick," Trump says of Cruz. "There's something wrong with this guy."
More and more voters are inclined to agree. Cruz is the Halloween candidate, trying to frighten Republicans into voting for him. Where Trump conjures a new dawn of national greatness, for Cruz it is always midnight in America. It is not exactly heartwarming for a presidential candidate to say, as did Cruz in South Carolina, "I wake up scared every day."
In his telling, he is America's last chance of pulling back from the abyss. He is the polar opposite of the synthetically positive Marco Rubio -- a human depressant with a dark and gloomy message. His claim to be a "consistent conservative" does not seem to include any concern for actual people. Hence the priceless moment in Thursday's debate when, confronted with Trump's insistence that he would not "let people die in the street," Cruz seemed to suggest that a consistent conservative would kick the corpses to the curb.
And so his relentlessly dystopian campaign seems to have hit the wall. His hope of taking down Trump rested on expanding his base of Tea Party adherents and the deeply religious. Instead, Trump is swiping his evangelicals. As with the other also-rans, Cruz waited too late to go after Trump, flattering the solipsistic billionaire while transparently hoping he would implode.
To the contrary, Cruz is powering his own implosion. His campaign manager is a noted smear monger, and dirty tricks and mendacious ads have accentuated his charmlessness.The Nixonian fingerprints accumulate -- the phony announcement of Ben Carson's withdrawal; a photoshopped picture of Rubio with Obama; a garbled videotape which wrongly portrayed Rubio as trashing the Bible; robo-calls and radio ads which, even by the standards of South Carolina, were rankly deceptive.
Each new episode of sleaze summons fresh unctiousness from Cruz: "The Bible talks about if someone treats you unkindly, repay them with kindness. It is been the standard I've tried to follow." This must startle the fellow Republicans Cruz has attacked for his own political gain -- in Washington, it can be fairly said of Cruz that even his friends don't like him.
Now this loathing is seeping into the electorate, spreading a sense of dishonesty and demagoguery that suggests a contemporary Joe McCarthy. Every time that Cruz plays the victim of unfair and diversionary attacks, it becomes easier to imagine blood dripping from his fangs. Thus his freshly minted insinuation that Trump has committed tax fraud is caught in the undertow of Cruz's perceived mendacity. Cruz has created his own character issue and, it would seem, his own ceiling.
But Trump's good fortune abounds. Witness the ongoing fecklessness of the party elite. Belatedly stirring from their catatonic trance, they now resemble a forlorn tourist lost in a bad neighborhood during a rainstorm, vainly shouting at the last taxi as its taillights vanish into the night.
The more timorous are publicly making peace with the idea of Trump; the far less timorous Chris Christie has revenged a barrage of negative advertising in New Hampshire, kneecapping Marco Rubio by endorsing the bilious billionaire. Others have lapsed into hushed whispers, fearful of alienating a vengeful Trump. Still others are clutching at Rubio like a human life raft, conjuring scenarios of rescue while, with comical frenzy, spurring a parade of meaningless endorsements which they somehow imagine will turn the tide in Rubio's favor.
It's hard to capture the haplessness of this. Don't they know that Bob Dole, however worthy, is from another time? What does it mean that the Koch brothers, ever in search of a puppet, have lent their chief political operative to the ever amenable Rubio? But oh, the establishment says, just wait until Mitt Romney gives his blessing to our boy Marco.
Seriously? If there is any message they should have grasped by now, it's that hordes of Republicans can't forget Mittens fast enough. His recent attack on Trump over, of all things, his tax returns provokes wonder at Romney's inability to look into the fun house mirror of his own flawed political persona. Whatever delusions the establishment conjures, many in the base would rather buy a reverse mortgage from the late Fred Thompson than hear another word from Willard Romney.
But Trump's real stroke of luck is that the elites' last hope is a political mollusk. Marco Rubio is a concept, not a president. The concept is youth and diversity, packaged with a Horatio Alger story that passes the torch to the "children of the Reagan revolution." The reality is a rich man's pet -- a drive-by senator with no achievements, mutable policy positions, and a reliance on comically excessive denunciations of Barack Obama.
When pressed, Rubio says little different than Ted Cruz, save when imitating Donald Trump on immigration and surveillance of American Muslims -- the latest instance of which is his promise to begin deporting Dreamers on his first day in office. The remnant is Mitt Romney warmed over, save with a line of credit from soft-money donors instead of his own millions.
So where are the compelling attributes that would propel a last-minute surge? Campaigning with Rubio and African-American Senator Tim Scott, Governor Nikki Haley compared this youthful and diverse triumvirate to a Benetton ad. But she came closer than intended to encapsulating Rubio's campaign -- a glossy surface with little beneath, a reflection of Rubio himself.
Rubio has never displayed political courage of any kind -- unless you count his desperate rearguard action in Thursday's debate where, losing in the polls and under pressure from donors, he took a truckload of opposition research and dumped it in Trump's lap. Give Rubio this -- he didn't flinch, and at times he made Trump look like the buffoon he has always been. But by saving his onslaught for a single 11th hour attack, Rubio helped reduce the debate to a schoolyard brawl that was neither presidential nor even adult.
Too much, too late. And, as ever, Rubio's dependence on hysterical right-wing talking points was on full display, as when he pandered to the Sheldon Adelsons of the world by labeling Palestinians en masse as suicide bombers, making Trump sound almost statesmanlike. There was a brief, queasy moment where an awful thought presented itself: Would this lightweight be an even worse president than Donald Trump? Truly terrible to contemplate, and a measure of what the GOP establishment has come to.
As if to underscore this, since the debate Rubio has debuted a new political self, calling Trump an ignorant "con man," fair enough, while hurling insults worthy of the master himself -- including a suggestion of incontinence. In striving to derail Trump, Rubio has become Trump or, more accurately, The Apprentice. As Trump responds that Rubio is "a choker," his followers howl in glee. And so Rubio is taking the establishment on a demeaning and mind-numbing race to the bottom that shows little promise of stemming the Trump tsunami.
In embracing Rubio, the GOP elite are pressing the only survivor with the stuff to be president, John Kasich, to step aside. But as long as there is life in his candidacy, why should he? In Thursday's debate it was Kasich, not Rubio, who combined a presidential temperament with deep knowledge of the issues. He is an accomplished legislator and capable governor; Rubio is neither. In his heart, Kasich has to view the idea of Rubio as president with near-contempt.
But again Trump benefits. By presenting himself as a conciliator, Kasich is running against the grain of the Republican electorate, while taking a chunk out of Rubio. Over the weekend, Kasich called for civility yet again, labeling the GOP campaign "disgraceful"; the morning shows, riveted by their sudden discovery that Trump is truly loathsome, covered the GOP's tripartite food fight while paying Kasich little mind. In the upside-down world of 2016, attitude trumps experience.
Finally, even this year's primary schedule favors Trump. And, once again, the GOP elite did this to themselves.
After the corrosive primary fight of 2012, the party professionals front loaded and condensed the primary calendar for 2016, hoping to squelch insurgents and quickly anoint an establishment candidate. But their tactic has backfired -- empowering the surprise front runner, Donald Trump, while narrowing the window for other candidates to rally or for voters to entertain second thoughts. By March 16, nearly 60 percent of all GOP delegates will have been chosen, cementing Trump's chokehold on the nomination.
The nature of the states holding primaries by mid-March also serves Trump's candidacy. The first four primary states were too demographically varied to produce a single challenger. Now the still-fractured field gives Trump a daunting advantage in today's primaries and beyond.
Most of today's contests take place in southern states where Trump is doing well. In polling for the 13 primaries or caucuses, Trump appears to lead in all but Cruz's home state of Texas. Sunday's endorsement by Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, an epicenter of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim feeling, further fortified Trump in the more feverish precincts of the South. All he needs is for Rubio and Cruz to keep on splitting votes, with a likely assist from Kasich in less conservative states such as Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia. And a Trump win in Texas would wipe Cruz off the board.
Texas aside, if Trump comes out of Super Tuesday with accelerated momentum, he could pick up three more states on March 5, and Michigan and Mississippi on March 8 -- places where Kasich hopes to do well. By then, Cruz and Rubio will be gasping for oxygen, if not expired altogether. And March 15 gives Trump the chance to knock off Kasich and Rubio in their home states, Ohio and Florida, while picking up Illinois and Missouri. Game over -- if it isn't already.
By comparison, his rivals' path to the nomination is a tight rope. In today's primaries, both Rubio and Cruz will be trying to limit Trump's haul of delegates by targeting specific areas: Cruz the Bible Belt; Rubio more mainstream states and suburban areas populated by affluent voters. Their hope is that the complicated proportional allocation rules for delegates in early primaries limits the impact of statewide pluralities for Trump. Yet if both succeed in surviving, they perpetuate the multi-candidate field that has given Trump plurality wins.
But even if Trump destroys Cruz's chances in today's contests, he may also deal Rubio a mortal wound. And if he does not, the pool of voters available to Rubio going forward is less than promising. There is no monolithic non-Trump vote; indeed, Trump is as likely to inherit as many Cruz voters as is Rubio, if not more. All in all, it is far from clear that there is a sufficient pool of voters for Rubio to pull it out. And Kasich will be vying for the very same votes.
Amidst these tough scenarios, the most imaginable is that Rubio will get past March 15 with enough victories to reach delegate-rich winner-take-all states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California. But query where Rubio's victories come from except, perhaps, Florida -- where as of now he is trailing Trump. To ask the question is to confirm how close Trump is to completing his hostile takeover.
And so, tomorrow morning, the party may well wake up like a man with a hangover, a sour taste in his mouth, trying to remember how he got this way and wishing he were dead. And then a terrible image will slowly materialize from the night before -- the gargoyle face of the GOP's new leader, Donald Trump.