Trump’s assassination talk sends Republicans running; creates opening for progressives

As the familiar refrain now goes, the Donald Trump campaign has had a “tough two weeks.” From the controversy with Gold Star parents to the Paul Ryan endorsement commotion and the Iranian cash airplane video, more and more Republicans have started to join a growing chorus questioning whether their nominee has what it takes to be president.

Trump’s economic speech in Detroit Monday was supposed to be the turnaround. Read straight from the teleprompter, it was a perfect fit with the traditional GOP program of the last few decades: tax cuts tilted toward the upper end of the wealth spectrum and deregulation. But of course, it’s not a Trump speech without a few disingenuous jabs against free trade thrown in for good measure. The word “workers” was sprinkled in here and there. Some took it as a sign that perhaps the Donald had turned the corner. Maybe this guy could actually be kept on point.

But then, less than 24 hours later, it all fell apart. At a rally in North Carolina, the Republican nominee said that if Hillary Clinton is elected president, it may fall to “the Second Amendment people” to stop her from appointing Supreme Court justices. His remarks, which plunged his campaign into a fresh crisis, were seen by many as musings about assassination or an armed rebellion.

Though his campaign immediately went into damage control and tried to explain it away as simply a call for gun-owner unity at the polls, the likely result is that the already steady stream of Republicans abandoning Trump will now turn into a deluge. Many long-time GOP leaders are starting to see that Trump may be a sinking ship beyond repair.

GOP: A party already divided

The important thing to understand from the start is that Trump was never the guy that the GOP wanted. By cravenly using the racism and reactionary politics stirred up by Tea Party resentment over the years, they did, however, create the conditions which gave rise to his right-wing populist campaign. As long as that kind of message was winning elections and their candidates came out on top, the party didn’t mind giving a wink and a nod to the birther movement, indulging in anti-immigrant policies, or opportunistically using the Evangelical community. But with Trump, they finally lost control of the tiger they had been riding.

The recent splits that appearing in the Republican Party – such as 50 GOP national security officials denouncing their nominee, Maine Senator Susan Collins refusing to vote for him, or Joe Scarborough calling on the party to “dump Trump” – are all public manifestations of a trend that was already evident under the surface even during the primaries.

Campaign contribution data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that candidates like Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio were far and away the preferred standard-bearers of the big money industrial sectors that back the Republican Party, especially oil and gas, real estate, insurance, tobacco, agribusiness, construction, and transportation. For all of these groups, Trump was far down on their recipient list.

Since he achieved victory in the primaries, though, there has been a period of wait-and-see for many Republicans and their corporate backers. It was still hoped that perhaps Trump’s right-wing populism could be controlled and channeled. Maybe the worst could be avoided.

The panic that now appears to be sending GOPers running for the lifeboats, however, is a signal that such hopes are fading fast. Trump has proven that he just can’t be relied upon to stick to the script they’ve tried to write for him. Electoral self-interest is now forcing a reconsideration.

To be fair of course, you also cannot discount the common sense and decency angle in some of this. Trump’s reckless rhetoric goes far beyond even the right-wing norm of Republican politics. The further he ventures out on the extremist limb, the more that some Republicans – especially Republican voters – are going to be questioning their conscience.

Clinton and the Democrats should seize the populist agenda

But none of this means the Clinton campaign can count on smooth sailing ahead or that progressives can just wait for the votes to come rolling in. Even if Trump flames out, his populist base in the industrial and rural heartland is still going to be angry and desperate. Their concerns about the the crushing realities of an economic “recovery” which has yet to come their way, the unresponsiveness of the political system, and the fact that “Washington elites” continue to ignore them are not going to go away.

The self-inflicted crippling of Trump’s campaign presents both dangers and opportunities for the left and labor.

It means it is time to pay even more attention to down-ticket races for Congress and state offices. As its chances at the presidency become more untenable, the Republican Party is going to focus more of its efforts and resources to hold onto Congress. If the cash of the Koch brothers and others is not flowing to Trump, you can bet that it will be pouring into right-wing campaigns at all other levels even more.

That’s the danger part.

The potential opportunity part comes from the fact that Trump is going to be under increased pressure to stick to the teleprompter. GOP leaders will keep trying (perhaps in vain) to tape their traditional policy book over Trump’s mouth in an effort at damage control. This could leave an opening for progressives to open discussions with some of the working class Trump voters who feel their troubadour is abandoning them for the establishment.

If Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are smart, they will seize the populist agenda. Right now they should be putting forward even stronger proposals for expanding Social Security, moving toward single-payer healthcare, and implementing stronger family leave and other policies. Rooting the campaign in strong left populist measures such as these is the best route to not only ensuring a landslide victory in November but also expanding the democratic coalition to include even more of those left out by globalization and the uneven economic recovery. It can help shift the balance in Congress and set the stage for real advances for the majority of the American people after the elections.

This is the opportunity to speak to the real concerns of those who feel abandoned and forgotten. It is the chance to speak to the concerns of the 99 percent with a message that works. This opening should not be squandered by turning to the right or simply gloating while Trump self-immolates.

Photo: Donald Trump campaign signs are swept up with the garbage after a cancelled event at the University of Illinois-Chicago on Friday, March 11, 2016. | Charles Rex Arbogast / AP


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.