On the evening of March 1, as polls began to close in the Super Tuesday primaries, I drifted over to the GOP watch party at the Embassy Suites in West Little Rock to ask Arkansas Republicans about the future of their party.
I arrived in time to catch a couple of brief victory speeches from U.S. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. French Hill, both of whom had faced lightweight opponents from the rightward fringe. The material was pro forma D.C. Republican: Boozman promised that President Obama would be denied the chance to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia, and Hill inveighed against Obamacare. Yet the scene was backdropped, literally, by the grassroots phenomenon bubbling up inside the GOP around the nation: Two projectors tuned to cable news, the sound muted, illuminated the wall behind the stage with proclamations of Donald Trump's victories in state after state.
Neither man mentioned Trump by name, though Hill began his remarks by observing that "voters tonight are telling elected officials all over the country, 'Hey! You're not listening to us!'" Not long after Hill began speaking, the networks switched to a live stream of Donald Trump's victory speech from Palm Beach, Fla., which made it difficult to focus on what the congressman was saying. One projector was off-color, and its beam of light was aimed too close to the lectern, and I watched as Trump's huge head, distorted and yellowed, played like a hallucination across the faces of French Hill and his family.
Despite a great deal of talk nationally about the chasm Trump has opened within the Republican Party, it didn't feel like a crisis was unfolding at the Embassy Suites hotel bar. The mood of the room was subdued and rueful, perhaps a little bewildered. Most Arkansas Republicans are still coming to terms with the fact of Donald Trump's dominance but seem prepared to digest it. Most are leery rather than horrified.
Unsurprisingly, Doyle Webb, the chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas, emphasized the positive for the GOP: About 62 percent of Arkansans who cast a ballot in this primary chose to vote Republican.
"That is unprecedented in our history," Webb told me. "Normally, the Democrats have voted 2-to-1 over Republicans, or 3-to-1, or 4-to-1. The enthusiasm is on our side; the voters are on our side. The voters are conservative and they want to see a Republican nomination." (Primary turnout isn't a great predictor of general election success, though: In 1988, Democratic primary turnout nationally was at its second-highest ever. Michael Dukakis lost.)
What about the fact that Arkansas Republican leaders lined up so solidly in favor of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (and a smaller contingent for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz)? Trump's only endorsement came from Sen. Jon Woods (R-Springdale), a lame-duck legislator who, weirdly, proclaimed his support at around 3 p.m. on Election Day. And yet Trump carried 33 percent of the Arkansas vote, Cruz took 31 percent and Rubio, who was endorsed by Gov. Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, two Arkansas congressmen and dozens of legislators, captured only 25 percent.
"I think it's up to the voters to decide who they want to represent the party, and should it be Donald Trump, I know that our party will be behind him," Webb said. "I know our governor and I know our other elected officials — I can't speak on their behalf, but I know in my heart they'll support the Republican nominee."
Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma) told me she would "support whoever our Republican nominee is," but expressed a hope that I've heard from many others: that President Trump will be mellower than candidate Trump. "When you step into office it gives you some perspective that you didn't have when you were running. I hope that brings a soberness to him, to be more reflective of some of the things that he thought would be so easy."
Still, Douglas didn't seem terribly enthusiastic about the Trump train. "People are mad, and they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater," she said.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Benton), an early supporter of Marco Rubio, said Trump's rise was fueled by "anger at Washington, which is clearly justified." But he pointed out that Arkansas voters also returned Republican incumbents to office in down-ballot races, including several key legislative primaries. "I think in Arkansas we're doing a good job of governing and trying to work together and bring about conservative policy, so I think it shows the anger only extends to Washington — it doesn't extend beyond that to legislative races."
"It's not a done deal, but it's looking like in all probability [Trump] will be the nominee," the senator acknowledged. And what happens then? "He's such an unknown that it's impossible to predict. Time will tell. There's moments when you can see Reagan in him, and there's moments that are ... scary."
Dan Greenberg, a former Republican legislator who now runs Advance Arkansas, a free market think tank, offered harsher words when I asked him what Trump's rise meant for the future of the Republican Party.
"I guess it means ... we'll have a lot more crassness and rudeness in American public life due to the example of the nominee," he said. "On the other hand, on the Democratic side, I think we're going to have a lot more tolerance of extremely clever, straight-faced lying. ... A lot of people think that both parties are pretty awful, and it's hard to avoid the thought that there's a lot of evidence to come to that conclusion this evening."
I said that sounded somewhat bitter.
"I don't know if 'bitterness' is really correct. Utter, abject fear," Greenberg replied. "Maybe it's a healthy wakeup call that politics as such is sometimes so grotesque that it really doesn't, and shouldn't, have a lot to do with people's real lives. I just can't see how either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump represents anything like America's best self."
Many Republicans oppose Trump. But there's a distinction to be made between the skepticism of establishment party officials like Jeremy Hutchinson and the revulsion of dedicated movement conservatives like Greenberg. To Greenberg, the most disturbing thing about Trump's hijacking of the GOP isn't the threat it poses to the party's electoral future, but how the billionaire threatens to corrupt the very idea of what "conservative" means. This is why National Review, the magazine that aims to be the intellectual flagship of American conservatism, devoted an entire issue to making the case against him. It's why right-wing outlets like The Federalist have run articles with headlines like "I'll Take Hillary Clinton Over Donald Trump," where writer Tom Nichols fumed that a President Trump "will be every bit as liberal as Hillary ... . He is by reflex and instinct a New York Democrat whose formal party affiliation is negotiable, as is everything about him."
"More to the point," Nichols continued, "after four years of thrashing around in the Oval Office like the ignorant boor he is, voters will no longer be able to distinguish between the words 'Trump,' 'Republican,' 'conservative,' and 'buffoon.' He will obliterate Republicans further down the ticket in 2016 and 2020, smear conservatism as nothing more than his own brand of narcissism, and destroy decades of hard work, including Ronald Reagan's legacy."
Earlier in the evening, when I spoke with Bill Kerr, a Maumelle man with two Trump bumper stickers plastered onto his cowboy hat, I asked about concerns that Trump was insufficiently conservative.
"Oh, horseshit," he replied.
"Listen, I'm right of Atilla the Hun, and he's right of me on certain issues. ... These guys that define themselves as conservative by defining themselves in their own mind — that, that doesn't cut it. This guy is Hillary's worst nightmare, and he's going to run a great race against her, and I think he'll be the next president in January."
As an open Trump supporter, Kerr was a lonely figure at the Embassy Suites. "I don't know if you noticed this or not, but I'm the only one here in visible support of Donald Trump — and yet he carried the damn state," Kerr said. "You see where I'm going with this? In this room, these are the Republicans who didn't support him — they need to coalesce around him now. This party needs to come and be united and not divided, or they're not going to beat Hillary.
"The problem with the old established Republicans is that ... you've got to start at the city alderman level, then become the mayor, then go to the legislature, then maybe run for a constitutional office. As you go up that ladder of progression, you have baggage and things that you owe to all these people, and that's why when they get up there, these people are all indebted to people. And they just can't see through the fog to endorse someone like Donald Trump. They have to endorse an establishment Republican, and Donald's not that. They're obligated. Everyone here is obligated."
"I've worked for him six months, real hard, and I'm tickled to death that he won tonight," Kerr said. The night's returns weren't surprising to him; he's seen the momentum in Arkansas firsthand.
"[The campaign] has been sending out emails saying you can come to Maumelle on Friday, between 5 and 7 p.m., and pick up a yard sign. We had thousands of yard signs picked up. Listen. They came from Texarkana. They came from El Dorado. McGehee. Jonesboro. Russellville. Morrilton. Hot Springs. Pine Bluff. I haven't seen that kind of enthusiasm since Tommy Robinson, back in the '90s."
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