"You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
- Lee Atwater, political aide to Ronald Reagan, 1981
NOTE: It is entirely possible Trump is doing this run for pure vanity reasons. For the sake of simplicity I'm assuming he's serious, but the points remain even if he isn't.
We've read Donald Trump's headlines. Obama might not have been born in the US! He's got people checking it out! The newspaper announcement for Obama's birth was so the family could get welfare! MUSLIM! He even wrote a response to an anti-Trump editorial that serves as a right-wing example of Poe's Law.
I'm assuming I don't have to point out this is all BS, but here you go anyway. The Birther conspiracy is so widespread and well-known now that I can't remember if it's funny or sad.
What is funny is to note that the Birther thing wasn't Trump's initial card to play in the presidential race. He tried (and admittedly did okay) getting the CPAC "cred", did the tightrope walk (with a rightward lean) on social issues, oh and he loves guns and will pay for his own election and he HATES MICHAEL MOORE SO MUCH and hates the GOP establishment and thinks America Is Number Won Until Obama and he screwed over Gaddafi personally! This is all fine as far as red meat goes...but nobody really seemed to care much about The Donald's run. Most wrote it off as another vanity project or circus sideshow act.
While all this was going on, the rest of the candidates had their own problem. They had to prepare to run in a general election that's going to preferably be a referendum on Obama. The logic here is quite simple: 1) be electable enough, 2) don't do anything stupid, 3) hope for the best.
To even get to that step, though, there's that classic problem: you have to run towards the Republican base. The anti-marriage equality, Ken Buck levels of pro-life,
majority birther base, full of activists from the increasingly unpopular tea party. The sparsely attended but highly influential Iowa caucuses in particular are a roach motel situation, to paraphrase Bill Maher: you go in to Iowa, you aren't coming out (politically) alive.
(by the way, stupid people in the YouTube comments for that video, Maher wasn't insulting Iowa, he was insulting the Iowa Republican caucus)
What to do? You don't want to look crazy for a general electorate! But if you look sane in the primary, you could end up like former future Senator Mike Castle, trounced by a sufficiently bonkers Republican nominee.
The GOP came up with three compromise solutions of dealing with the crazy.
a) The "not important" dodge, saying that "with the jobs and the deficit and the economy and Obama" and hoping that whoever was listening has stopped by this point. This is ideal as it simply changes the topic; the big problem is sometimes journalists actually push the issue. If this fails...
b) The "patriotic" dodge, seen here in full-form by John Boehner. Do NOT say that President Obama was born in Hawaii, under any circumstances. But, you can say
- Obama says he was born in Hawaii
- Obama is the president
- (Implied) As a patriotic American...
- I trust the President at his word
This works as there's no real judgment call, but instead a vague appeal to patriotism of the type seen in the early 2000s Bush era. Ideally, the Birther nut hears the lack of confirmation while the moderate hears the affirmation of belief in Hawaii. It hopefully silences the issue. If all else fails...
c) The "joke" dodge. Tim Pawlenty used it but it's fairly common. Seriously, there were like 10 Birther jokes during CPAC. Ideally this fulfills the same function as the "patriotic" dodge: the moderate voter just hears a joke about a silly situation, while the Birthers hear a call-to-action.
The practice of a non-front runner candidate using an ideological issue to boost him/herself into the front of a primary is nothing new. Heck, if you do it right, it can work. But Donald Trump's latest adventure has a unique cynicism to it.
Put simply: Donald Trump is filling the Birther void left by the failure of the GOP candidates to "adequately address" (I use the term loosely) the Birther issue. Not willing to subject themselves to media scrutiny and hoping to keep the crazy base under control, the Republican leaders formed a strategy to achieve both goals and avoid destruction. Donald Trump saw the opening and jumped for it.
Now, Trump's reputation as some kind of business genius is mostly hype; I don't recall Bill Gates or Warren Buffet having the multiple bankruptcies issues Trump has endured, nor is his story the American Dream: he got his money the old fashioned way. But I don't think he's this kind of stupid; I think he's probably a right-wing businessman who wants to pay no taxes and reduce any labor/environmental protections that still exist in the name of profit, sure. But he's not Birther conservative.
But there's a certain cynical, simplistic brilliance to Trump's new strategy because he's realized something the GOP is slowly figuring out and quickly learning to fear:
The strategies of Lee Atwater, where you can harbor the hatred of far right nutjobs while maintaining an image of professionalism and intelligence, no longer work.
Remember that this is the party where you can't insult Rush Limbaugh, where you can't respond negatively to even the most insane conspiracies, where FreedomWorks and Club for Growth are more important than the RNC. Where Bob Inglis and Robert Bennett are somehow liberals. The Republican base made this jump a long time ago, and the establishment is terribly confused at how to catch up.
In the month or so that Trump has become full-on Birther, he's jumped in the polls, both nationally and in "moderate" New Hampshire. These polls were considered "shocking" by the beltway and GOP establishment. Maybe they should've checked Free Republic (seriously, search for an article about him, they love the guy now).
Paul Krugman put it best about a year or so ago: [the] GOP has been taken over by the people it used to exploit. Trump is simply working on new ways to exploit them.
Will this work in the long run, beyond a few months? Will Trump's multiple negatives bring him down? Is he even serious? I don't really know. But Trump has already shown something very important in the upcoming 2012 primary season: jumping in head first with the Birchers, Birthers and conspiracy wing of the party is the way to get ahead. If Trump turns out to be a joke, some other Republican nut will simply take his place. Hell, Sarah Palin is already trying to play catch up.
But with one simple move, a simple anti-intellectual conspiratorial racist xenophobic insanely stupid move, Trump has gone from sideshow to real contender to be reckoned with. If he's really serious and decides to stick with playing this game, Trump could quickly become the hero of the GOP base that actually shows up to caucuses. That might be all you need nowadays.
The fact he didn't make George Will's Big 5 Real Candidates List? Nobody cares.
The fact his business credentials are BS? I kinda doubt the teabaggers care, if they'll even believe it.
The fact a party could potentially nominate a man preying on the same instincts Atwater went after without even his limited subtly? I sincerely hope, and expect, the country will care about that.