WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — The ragged remnants of the rational wing of the Republican Party endured another Trumping on Tuesday night. And while Ted Cruz may still hold the line in Indiana next Tuesday, Donald Trump has what a fella named Bush back in 1980 described as the “Big Mo.”
There is a growing chance, but still no certainty, that Trump will come into Cleveland having won a 1,237-delegate majority. But it may not matter. After Trump’s lopsided numbers Tuesday night, large chunks of the GOP establishment may be poised for a negotiated surrender.
If only the leaders of the Republican Party had the courage of their convictions. Or even the courage of their lack of convictions. Instead, Bernie Sanders — with no chance of winning the Democratic nomination — is showing more gumption than are most Republicans in Washington.
To try to understand how a major political party could be scammed by a flimflam artist, I attended Trump’s last pre-primary rally here on Monday night at the jammed Mohegan Sun Arena.
Unlike many Trump rallies, this one featured a happy rather than an angry crowd. These northeastern Pennsylvania voters were looking to affirm their faith in the candidate rather than to vent in a version of Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate.”
Sure, there were boos when Trump denounced the “dishonest media.” But there was something half-hearted to Trump’s demand that the TV crews pan the crowd because “they never move the cameras unless there’s a phony protester around.”
And Trump shouldn’t have blamed me personally. I moved my notebook and panned my tape recorder to show that even the nosebleed sections were filled in the 10,000-seat arena.
There were also nods of assent when Trump claimed against all evidence that “more people are pouring over our Southern border than practically ever before.” But there was no detectable anti-immigrant frenzy even when Trump asked ominously, “Are they ISIS? It could be the great Trojan horse.”
The dominant sense that I had from watching the show in Wilkes-Barre — and from interviewing Trump supporters afterwards — was that these voters saw themselves as patriots joining a cause larger than themselves.
Howard Metzger, who is semiretired from a cleaning business, arrived at the arena four hours early to make sure that he got a prime seat. Metzger, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and then became disillusioned, explained, “I like that Trump’s not a politician. He’s a person who can make a change.”
Trump played on that quest for hope and change when he told the crowd, “When you look back in five years and 15 years and 25 years … you’re going to say that was the single greatest vote that I ever cast. For President Donald Trump.”
In Wilkes-Barre, Trump projected his own insecurities onto America, seeing the nation as hungry for respect just as he is personally. Trump ticked off a list of petty humiliations that Obama has suffered internationally, from the president’s half-forgotten failure to win the Olympics for Chicago to recent airport snubs in Saudi Arabia and Cuba.
Trump is more obsessed with R-E-S-P-E-C-T than Aretha Franklin.
Envisioning himself in the White House, Trump said, “You’re going to have great respect for your president. But I don’t care. You’re going to have great new respect for your country again. Great, great respect.”
What Trump is reflecting is a national attitude that dates back to the 1950s, or probably even earlier. It’s the idea that the world is playing us as Uncle Sucker — that sophisticated Europeans are sniggering at us even as we protect them now and saved them in two world wars. It is reflected in polls showing that Americans believe that a quarter of the federal budget goes to foreign aid instead of less than 1 percent.
But with President Trump, America will no longer be a 99-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face by a bully in the old Charles Atlas commercials. So what if Trump gets his foreign policy ideas from watching TV? All that matters is that with Trump as president America will never again be scorned as an outer-borough country.
What should make the likely wreath-laying ceremony at Trump’s feet so galling is that he represents a repudiation of virtually every principle that 21st century Republicans supposedly hold dear. Nowhere in Trump’s 50-minute speech in Wilkes-Barre was there a call for tax cuts. Ronald Reagan’s name was never invoked. Trump didn’t rail against the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage. And his discussion of health care was reduced to a single ambiguous sentence: “We’re going to terminate Obamacare and replace it with something far, far better.”
For decades, the Republicans have been the free-trade party. But not any more. Support for NATO and our alliances are a bedrock GOP principle. Or at least it was before Trump. Ditto for entitlement reform, a cause that animates Republicans like Paul D. Ryan and John Kasich.
You would think that a fading political party would “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Instead, most Republicans seem ready to cut a deal with the devil. Or as he probably will soon be called, Mr. Trump, your Republican nominee.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter at @MrWalterShapiro.
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.