There is a sense among the Republican establishment that Donald Trump’s candidacy is, to quote Bob Odenkirk, a traveshamockery. That is, Trump is contaminating conservatism and diminishing the chances a Republican will win in 2016.
But Trump neither espouses conservative positions nor calls himself a conservative. So it is difficult to see how his nationalist approach could taint conservative ideology or color the public’s view of conservative principles.
Certainly, you can see how Trump might hurt the Republican party. For instance, by becoming its nominee. Or, if he failed to secure the nomination, by running a third-party candidacy—which would almost guarantee a Democratic president.
Yet as things stand, you could make the case that Trump’s candidacy has been good—perhaps even very good—for the other Republicans running for president.
Five months ago, Republicans worried that Hillary Clinton’s celebrity coronation would consume all the political oxygen and the GOP contest—with Jeb Bush as the dynastic, technocratic frontrunner—would seem boring by comparison. Then Trump happened. He’s attracted the biggest crowds of any candidate this cycle, and he pulled enormous audiences to the Republican debates.
Twenty-four million people watched the Fox News debate. (That’s just on TV; another eight million streamed it over the web.) Twenty-three million people watched the CNN debate. These are unheard-of numbers for primary debates, where at the high end you might get eight million eyeballs. To put this in perspective, 70 million people watched the first Romney-Obama debate—and that number includes all the broadcast and cable-news networks. The most-watched debate in the modern era was Reagan-Carter: Nearly 81 million people tuned in, but it was the only thing on television—cable barely existed—and it was the only debate of the race.
If you’re Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, or any other Republican sharing the stage, you ought to be grateful that Trump delivered such immense audiences to your feet. The first rule of retail is that you can’t make the sale unless the customer is in the store. Trump is bringing millions of customers to the GOP Megastore.
The other candidates should also be thankful to Trump for helping to develop some best practices for this primary season. For example, note how Trump responds to attacks from the media. Instead of going into a defensive crouch—the way Scott Walker did when he fired a staffer who displeased some Iowa Republicans—Trump stands pat. Or even doubles-down. Ben Carson has taken a page from Trump’s playbook in handling the non-scandal of not wishing for a Muslim president. The polling suggests that Carson has only helped himself by standing firm.
Trump has also demonstrated that Republican voters do not need to be coddled with Pollyannaish views about the country’s state. It is a political fallacy that campaigns must, at all times, project a positive outlook. At this juncture, America’s continued stability and prosperity can no longer be assumed, and that is why one of Trump’s most effective lines is the observation that “We lose to everybody” these days, followed by explanations of how America gets the short-end with Russia, China, Iran, Mexico, etc. Campaigns must be forward-looking, yes. But they needn’t be so optimistic that they look blinkered. Reagan promised morning in America, but people forget that, as the Washington Free Beacon put it, “Reagan wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows,” either.
Trump’s campaign has also shown that a candidate who’s willing to follow the news and eschew set-piece issue choreography—October 19 is cap-gains week; on November 2 we unveil our revolutionary highway and infrastructure plan—can get traction. For instance, Trump used the murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco to talk about the perils of allowing “sanctuary cities” to flout immigration laws. Every campaign should be so nimble.
That leads us, finally, to immigration. It’s not true, as Trump insists, that nobody would be talking about immigration were it not for his candidacy. But it is certainly true that some of the candidates would prefer to talk about immigration as little as possible. And it is probably true that Trump forced the conversation on immigration to take place earlier than it would have otherwise.