By Lee A. Daniels
The August 6th Fox News-sponsored, two-tiered debate of the GOP presidential primary candidates has shown anew the Republican Party’s continuing to explore different ways a political party can self-destruct.
Two developments of last week have underscored that the GOP’s raging intra-party war and identity crisis is more serious than ever.
Donald Trump’s remarkably bad performance at the so-called Top 10 debate in Cleveland has to worry the Party’s professional operatives as much as his initial entry into the race did (especially since he explicitly refused, amid catcalls from the audience, to rule out mounting a third-party candidacy). From the beginning to the end of the two-hour session, Trump was horrible: flustered and defensive at the probing quality of the questions put to him, especially by Fox News talk show host Megyn Kelly; needlessly rude and insulting to a host of others present and not present; and clearly annoyed at having to share the spotlight at all with the other candidates.
Trump’s failure was the more surprising because navigating the debate format of the crowded, 10-person field didn’t actually require specific knowledge about this or that policy. It just required glibly using standard Republican sound bites to deliver a seemingly coherent response to the questions.
What does it mean that Trump, for all his television experience, couldn’t bob and weave his way through such a low-pressure question-and-answer reality show?
It means Trump shouldn’t have been there at all.
He was there, however, because his great wealth shields him from having to seek the GOP’s “permission” to run. And, ironically, because his indifference to Republican ideology has enabled him to more openly and harshly champion the Party’s doctrine of tough-guy posturing, cruelty and exclusion the GOP base is addicted to.
In other words, Trump’s candidacy personifies how the Republican Party’s organizational integrity is being erased by both its wealthy class of supporters and those who make up its rank-and-file voters. Jon Stewart, the satirist and former host of “The Daily Show,” got it exactly right in late July when he said, “People like Trump are supposed to buy the candidates – not be them.”
But Trump has shown that billionaire outsiders like him can run for the presidency because the U.S. Supreme Court’s egregious Citizens United ruling of 2010 struck down limitations on political spending. The GOP lobbied for that decision because they thought it would enable them to defeat President Obama in 2012 and, backed by the dollars of the business sector and wealthy individuals, forever destroy the Democratic Party’s national political prospects.
What GOP leaders didn’t understand was that, by erasing limits on political spending, Citizens United also destroyed political parties’ organizational ability to significantly control how wealthy donors’ money got spent. It produced an explosion of fund-raising vehicles – super PACs – completely independent of the parties’ control. And it the ability of the parties to keep an unwanted rich outsider from injecting himself or herself into the presidential sweepstakes.
So, who will be the next uber-wealthy outsider to push the GOP’s professional politicians aside?
Or, perhaps the question should be: How long before the right-wing “Billionaires Boys and Girls Club” uses its enormous collective wealth and its individual and collective sponsorship of individual elected GOP officials to become the “new” Republican Party. (The GOP’s ultra-conservative and heavily Whites-only political orientation makes this a Republican phenomenon.)
In that regard, last week’s second important development was the invitation-only conference for the uber-wealthy the right-wing billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch staged at a luxurious California resort. Amid extraordinary secrecy, the Kochs invited just five of the announced GOP candidates to pitch the 450 attendees for support.
The conference is just one part of the Kochs’ multi-faceted campaign involving a web of nonprofit political organizations they’ve created with the goal of putting a Republican in the White House in 2016 – an effort on which they’re prepared to spend $889 million.
An article in the Washington Post last week noted that the Kochs and their allies “have built a quasi-political party outside the traditional infrastructure [of the GOP], one made up of nonprofit groups financed with secret donations free of campaign finance limits.”
It went on to say the new entity is “both a valuable ally and a rival power center to the Republican National Committee” and that recent tensions over their separate data-mining efforts led the RNC’s chief of staff to warn it was “very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how.”
The power struggle was subsequently papered over by a joint agreement to share data throughout the current election cycle. But isn’t the tension between the traditional GOP bureaucracy and the new independent, “quasi-political party” of uber-wealthy conservatives evidence that there’s another elephant taking up space in the Republican Party’s tent?
Of those two elephants, which one is growing larger and stronger every day, and which is fading to ghost status right before our eyes?
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.