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The Donald Trump Impact: Not so Inevitable After All

Will the Donald Trump immigration comments linger? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

I was surprised by the near unanimity over the weekend about the impact of the Donald Trump comments about Mexican immigrants. Almost every disinterested political observer agreed Trump’s typically over-the-top remarks were certain to hurt GOP prospects in the 2016 presidential election.  

I am skeptical about that.  

Once again, too many observers got caught up in the events of the day and, because of that, failed to put current developments into a larger context, thereby exaggerating Trump’s likely effect on next year’s elections.  

Trump’s comments reflected silly stereotypes that demonized an entire people. But he didn’t make millions and become a celebrity by being delicate, humble or otherwise measured in his rhetoric.  

He is, as I wrote a few weeks ago, a carnival barker, not a serious, thoughtful observer of American politics and culture. And he isn’t a credible contender for the Republican presidential nomination in this or any other century.  

That’s not to say there isn’t a grain of truth in some of his bombastic pronouncements. But Trump prefers to play the demagogue and bomb-thrower, so he deserves to be seen in that light.  

Obviously, Trump’s comments about immigrants are not helpful for Republicans who understand how this country is changing, demographically and attitudinally . His intolerant, unsympathetic rhetoric makes it more difficult for other Republican candidates to talk to Hispanics, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and other voters who feel unwelcome in the Republican Party — and who will have an increasingly significant effect on U.S. elections in the future.  

But acknowledging that is not at all the same thing as agreeing Trump’s comments would damage the GOP’s prospects in the next presidential contest.  

As I always point out, political analysis that treats events occurring some 15 months before an election as decisive is not the kind of analysis I normally value. The best answer — in fact the only good answer — to the question of whether Trump’s comments about Mexicans will damage the GOP’s prospects in 2016 is: “It depends.”  

If Trump is the GOP nominee, or if someone who holds Trump’s views is nominated, then his comments will be a significant liability for his party, because Democrats will be able to connect the dots and rather easily paint the Republican Party as intolerant and racist.  

But if the Republicans nominate a different kind of candidate — for example, someone who stresses inclusive, welcoming political language, is Hispanic or is fluent in Spanish and is married to a woman from Mexico — then that is a very different situation.  

The Republican Party will be defined next year by its nominee for president and his positions on issues, rhetoric and style. The party’s national conventions will play a role in that definition, as will the candidate’s performance in televised debates and during the entire campaign.  

Why do I think this? Because it is always the case.  

Talking heads on television and even reputable political analysts and journalists spend oodles of time chattering about things that are largely unimportant in determining the winner of a presidential election, such as Clint Eastwood’s 2012 Republican National Convention presentation.  

By the time a general election rolls around, most voters are evaluating the country’s economy and the nation’s security, as well as comparing the major party nominees. They are not basing their votes on some third-string, former candidate who was weeded out by the primary process.  

Right now, as you read this, Trump seems like a pretty big deal. He is moving in the polls . But in the fall of 2016 he is likely to be a much smaller deal. That’s not to say he won’t say some outrageous things that generate media coverage and will appear in Democratic TV ads. But unless he has a prominent role in the 2016 general election — or were to run as an independent — Trump will be a trivial factor.  

Let me be very clear: I am not saying Trump can’t, or won’t have any influence on the GOP race. Since he’ll likely meet the criteria for inclusion in a number of debates, the former reality show celebrity could well create chaos for his party. But those debates don’t begin until next month, so we need to wait to see exactly how disruptive he will be.  

The Republican brand has been damaged for years, well before Trump made his mindless comments about Mexicans. His comments give Democrats more ammunition to use against the Republican Party, and that isn’t what the GOP needs. But Trump is not alone in his party in saying things that alienate voters, and his impact on the Republican Party will depend much more on his behavior over the next year than on his comments during the past few weeks.  

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