Donald Trump tried an extreme makeover on Tuesday night. He wanted to appear more presidential. On a stage decorated with gold at his lavish Mar A Lago Florida estate, with his new consigliere Chris Christie solemnly guarding his back, Trump modestly marked his victories in the Super Tuesday primaries, took questions at a press conference rather than delivering a staple victory speech, and all was going well until someone asked him how he intended to get along with GOP critics, including the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.
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That’s when things went a bit awry, Trump’s eyes flashed anger, something may have popped in his head and the facade quickly dissipated. "I'm going to get along great with Congress. Paul Ryan, I don't know him well, but I'm sure I'm going to get along great with him," the front-runner for his party's nomination said. "And if I don't, he's going to have to pay a big price.”
The tough guy threat against the most senior Republican in the universe dissolved the thin veneer of newfound respectability that Trump had tried to wear and may have given us a glimpse of the shape of things to come. But it also reflected the acute tension and hostility at the top of the Republican party, in which many GOP bigwigs are increasingly uncomfortable with Trump’s tightening chokehold on the party’s nomination for the presidency. You only needed to tune in to Senator Lindsey Graham, who concurrently diagnosed the situation in an interview with Charley Rose on CBS: Trump, he said, is crazy.
It was another night of disappointment for the establishment and their favorite son, Marco Rubio. At the end of the evening Republican voters took pity and threw them a bone to nibble on, with a victory in the Minnesota caucus, a small step in reality but a potentially giant one for a master spinner like Rubio. Otherwise it was a night of continuous frustration and recurring failures: Trump swept all five Deep South states, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Virginia and Tennessee and two Northeasterners, Massachusetts and Vermont. Trump conquered and then occupied the cherished home base of GOP conservatives, in Evangelical Bible Belt country. He left his rivals with only a slim sliver of hope, which could very well turn out to be only a mirage.
The second winner of the evening, if that is the appropriate term, was the other nemesis of the establishment, Ted Cruz. He took his own must-win home state of Texas, its northern neighbor Oklahoma, and finally Alaska as well. Cruz, who also won the first contest in Iowa, touted his wins as proof that only he can stand up to Trump. He called on his rivals to resign and unite behind him, though he knows full well that nothing of the sort will happen.
Cruz faces two problems: the first is that while he might still squeeze a win or two from the primaries left to be held in the conservative south, the arena moves from there in other directions, to states in which his doctrinaire conservatism is a tougher sell. More importantly, perhaps, for many Republicans the choice between Cruz and Trump is between cholera and the plague, as the Jewish saying goes, or between death by shooting or by poison, as the pithy Graham has presented it. Significantly, perhaps, on Tuesday night it seemed that Graham himself was now willing to swallow the bitter pill: “I don’t believe I’m saying this,” Graham told Charley Rose on CBS, “but in such a situation we should all support Cruz.”
The other winner of the night, though on a much smaller scale, was Ohio Governor John Kasich who surprisingly eked out a narrow loss in Vermont. That’s enough for Kasich to rebuff party pressures to suspend his campaign and to stay on course for his next target in Michigan, on March 8, and then to his much larger objectives, Illinois and his home state of Ohio, which will come up for a vote a week later, on March 15.
That fateful day, Julius Caesar’s foreboding Ides of March, could also determine the future of Rubio’s race as his home state of Florida goes to the polls. Like Cruz in Texas and Kasich in Ohio, Florida is a must-win for Rubio, but unlike Cruz, who consistently led Trump in the polls, and Kasich, who trailed Trump by only a few percentage points, Rubio is lagging far behind, by a 40%-20% margin according to most polls. And Trump, who views Florida as his own second home by virtue of Mar A Lago, has it in for “Little Marco Rubio” as he calls him. Trump said he would spend as much time as needed campaigning in Florida, presumably not only to beat Rubio but to rub his face in the dirt as well.
And the truth is that other than his surprise win in Minnesota, venue for much of the superb second season of the television series Fargo, and his strong second place finish in Virginia, Rubio’s results were a letdown all around. For the first time, despite his usual fabulous ability of painting even dismal defeats as incredible victories, Rubio’s magic was gone. He was running on empty. If he doesn’t replenish soon, he’ll stall and get cast away to the sidelines.
The establishment hasn’t given up just yet. There are reports of secret meetings aimed at raising millions of dollars for one last desperate push, the Stalingrad of the election campaign. Now that Cruz’s resignation from the race seems impossible, there’s a new scheme afoot to encourage everyone to stay in, including Ben Carson, to siphon away as many delegates as possible from Trump and thus prevent him from crossing the threshold of 1237 that would give him the nomination. If they survive the first round of voting, it will be whole new ballgame, and the establishment’s secret dream will materialize: a brokered convention.
But after Trump’s emphatic victories on Super Tuesday, that scenario seems increasingly implausible. With such large victory margins, any effort to prevent Trump from becoming the GOP candidate would be viewed as usurpation: given that most of his supporters are united by their rage at the world, that could be a dangerous path to take. At the very least, Trump will take his voters and run independently, ensuring that the GOP would not retake the White House. At worst, Trump’s legions could burn their house down altogether.
By Graham’s account, that’s what’s going to happen anyway, with Trump at the top: Hillary Clinton will be president. Just like there are banks too big to fail, Graham said, the Republicans are too stubborn to succeed.