In case anyone missed the news, Hillary Clinton crushed Bernie Sanders in the Democrat primary in South Carolina on Saturday, winning 73.5% to 26.0%, a margin of more than 175,000 votes.
Clinton was always going to win the state, but she needed to win well, and did. Nate Silver had calculated beforehand that she needed to win by more than 20 percentage points to stay on track for the nomination, so 47 points is pretty good.
Already, the Democrat race was getting less than its fair share of attention, and that’s now going to get worse, as Clinton heads for a set of victories on Tuesday that will make her all but unbeatable. Everyone just wants to talk about the Republicans, and one Republican in particular. Donald Trump.
Last week I suggested that in many respects Trump would be no worse a president than Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. That question remains a source of much controversy.
Harry Enten pointed out more than a month ago that Rubio and (even more so) Cruz are not that appealing a prospect for anyone whose politics veer towards sanity. But many put Trump in a special category: Danielle Allen at the Washington Post compared him to Hitler and called for a cross-party effort to “to make common cause against this formidable threat to our equally shared liberties”; Juan Cole at Informed Comment says his rise “is an indictment of, and a profound danger to the American republic.”
And a long profile by Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone analyses but also epitomises the country’s fascination with Trump:
It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go.
Some are also pointing out, however, that the Trump campaign has not come out of nowhere: that he is merely giving a cruder shape to themes that have been a staple of Republican campaigns for many years now, and that even where he differs from Republican orthodoxy, he is still trading on the anger and resentment that those campaigns have stoked.
Opponents of the GOP, of course, have been saying this for a while; Jon Chait, for example, at New York magazine, says that conservative elites are seeing “the forces they have successfully harnessed for so long shake free and turn against them.” But now some Republicans are waking up.
In a remarkable piece a few days ago in the Washington Post, prominent neoconservative Robert Kagan described Trump as the party’s “Frankenstein’s monster, brought to life by the party, fed by the party and now made strong enough to destroy its maker.” He calls openly for a vote for Clinton, saying “The party cannot be saved, but the country still can be.”
Kagan is not the first Republican to prefer Clinton to Trump; Mark Salter, former chief-of-staff to John McCain, did so in a trenchant column the previous day. But Kagan is so far on his own in acknowledging that the party’s fanatical anti-Obama strategy – shared, of course, by Rubio and Cruz – has helped make Trump possible.
The race is not yet over: if Trump falters in the Super Tuesday primaries tomorrow night, or even if Rubio does well enough to become his sole rival, it’s easy to imagine him losing. But at the moment those look like very big “ifs”. Endorsement from Chris Christie gave Turmp a major boost in respectability, and recent reporting on decision-making among the Republican establishment conveys an impression of blind panic.
The latest betting market now gives Trump a better than 75% chance at the nomination; Rubio has fallen to 17.9% and Cruz has crashed to 2%, equal with John Kasich. Super Tuesday usually seals the race, so it’s possible that this contest is almost over. But the battle for the soul of the Republican Party may be just beginning.