The GOP Isn’t Choosing a President. They’re Choosing a Rebel Leader.

I wrote earlier this morning that Republican voters’ dissatisfaction with their own party is likelier because they feel their party is too moderate rather than too extreme. (If you want to see why, for instance, Donald Trump’s comments about John McCain haven’t hurt him much with the GOP base, just take a quick perusal of this thread at Free Republic.)

The clown car of Republican presidential candidates seems to agree. As Donald Trump has surged to the top of the field, his competitors are resorting to saying ever more outlandish and reprehensible things just to get noticed.

Witness the spectacle of Mike Huckabee this morning claiming that the negotiated deal with Iran would constitute President Obama marching “Israelis to the door of the oven.” Even by modern Republican standards that sort of rhetoric is a bridge too far. But it’s the sort of thing a Republican presidential aspirant has to say these days to get attention and support from the Republican base.

Or consider Rick Perry today, whose brilliant solution to mass shootings is for us to all “take our guns to the movie theaters.” As if the proper response to suicidal mass murderers using guns as the easiest, deadliest and most readily available tool to inflict mayhem is to arm every man, woman and child in the hope that the shooter dies slightly more quickly in the crossfire of a dark auditorium. Even as other moviegoers settle their disputes over cell phone texting with deadly gun violence.

Under normal circumstances these sorts of statements would be a death knell for presidential candidates. But these are not normal times. The Republican Party is locked into an autocatalytic cycle of increasing and self-reinforcing extremism.

The blue-collar white males who make up the GOP base are struggling more and more as business-friendly trickle-down economic policies continue to rob them of their economic security–but their inherent racism, sexism and distrust of government leads them to inherently reject reasonable liberal solutions in the fear that someone they don’t like might get a “handout” with their tax dollars. Hardcore political Republican partisans are slowly realizing that they no longer hold a silent majority in the country if they ever did, that every passing year demographic change makes their electoral prospects increasingly difficult, and that only a combination of gerrymandering, small-state-favoritism and accidental geographic political self-selection allows them to hold onto the House and Senate for now. And conservatives of all stripes can feel the ground shift underneath them irrevocably as liberals continue to win battles on social issues even as unfiltered left-leaning economic populism becomes increasingly mainstream.

Unwilling and unable to moderate their positions, the Republican base has assumed a pose of irredentist defiance, an insurgent war against perceived liberal orthodoxy in which the loudest, most aggressive warrior becomes their favorite son. It is this insurgent stance that informs their hardline views on guns: many of them see a day coming when their nativist, secessionist political insurgency may become an active military insurgency, and they intend to be armed to the teeth in the event that they deem it necessary. The GOP electorate isn’t choosing a potential president: they’re choosing a rebel leader. The Republican base doesn’t intend to go down compromising. They intend to go down fighting.

That’s why Donald Trump is so popular. That’s why the Republican Party’s brand is weak even among conservatives–because it’s too extreme for everyone else, but not extreme enough for them. And that’s why every other Republican candidate is saying increasingly outrageous things just to get noticed.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.