What would have seemed like a half-baked idea for a recurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch not so long ago pretty much became a lock Tuesday night when Donald Trump cruised to victory in the Indiana Republican presidential primary and Sen. Ted Cruz dropped out of the race.
The tweet from RNC chairman Reince Priebus saying Trump is the presumptive nominee and its time to get behind him means that many people in the country have accepted, except perhaps Gov. John Kasich, what was once unthinkable but for some time has been obvious.
Trump is going to be the nominee.
He may end up president.
Of the United States.
He is a very troubling candidate for a very troubling moment in our history. He isn’t particularly beholden to the Republican Party in his views, but Republican voters don’t mind, because they’ve gotten pretty sick of Republican Party views themselves. And that’s because a lot of things that were true when those views were most popular aren’t anymore.
In 1985, when Ronald Reagan had just won 49 states in his second presidential election, it was still possible for many young people to pay their way through college, and their living expenses, too, by cooking or waiting tables. This was possible because average annual tuition and fees at state universities in 1985 totaled $2,918 … in 2015 dollars. It was only $1,325 in 1985 bucks.
But in 2015, tuition and fees at state universities nationally averaged $9,410, considerably more than triple what they were in 1985, even adjusted for inflation.
And between 1999 and 2015 national median incomes declined about 8 percent. The traditional promise of conservatism is that if you work hard you can work your way up. That was largely true in the post-World War II era thanks to state universities supported in state budget appropriations and an economy providing good jobs with benefits even for people with only middling skills.
So a GOP leader like Reagan could honestly say, “If you work hard, you’ll make it, and we’ll help.” You could tell by the twinkle in his eye that Reagan was well-intentioned, even if you disagreed with his politics. And you knew he wasn’t dogmatic in his conservatism. He hiked the gas tax so we could fund roads and bridges. He hiked the Social Security withholding tax so we could have retirements. And he legalized 4 million immigrants so they could become Americans, because he considered that the greatest blessing of all.
And he was right. And the current crop of conservatives is wrong. State college costs for students have skyrocketed largely because Republican-controlled state legislatures have refused to increase higher education funding. Incomes have shrunk thanks to jobs sent offshore, to the benefit of large corporations. Our roads and bridges are falling apart because many Republican politicians would rather destroy what was once the greatest infrastructure in the world than let gas taxes keep pace with inflation to fund roads and bridges. And Republicans today thunder that we must turn away fleeing children at our borders and send back those who’ve been here for years, as if America is no longer strong enough to help them.
In the place of the grandfatherly Reagan, Republican voters who didn’t want to vote for Trump were offered Cruz as a paragon of conservative values, who preaches an angry and fearful brand of conservatism that might have well sickened Reagan. Or House Speaker Paul Ryan, who’s far nicer but just can’t see how governments can afford to keep helping folks. Or a bunch of other similarly untenable options.
The GOP, at its best, succeeded because it had smart, decent politicians offering up sound plans. But for the past few years the party has been dominated by a set of angry politicians offering outdated ideas.
Trump just won Indiana and is about to clinch the Republican nomination because so many Republican primary voters despise what the party and its leaders now stand for. The Republican establishment has been worried for months about how to save the party from Trump, and is literally quaking now as it tries to figure out how to rally behind him.
What the GOP establishment should have been worrying about is how to once again make it a party worth saving.