Last night, as early Super Tuesday results pointed towards sweeping wins for Donald Trump in the primaries, I drifted over to the Republican Party of Arkansas’s watch party at the Embassy Suites in West Little Rock to take the temperature of the room.
I arrived too late to see Gov. Hutchinson’s address, but I caught victory speeches from U.S. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. French Hill, both of whom faced lightweight primary opponents from the rightward fringe. “This is kind of like the Oscars,” Boozman said jovially (I assume he meant all the news cameras, though I wondered if “#OscarsSoWhite” flashed through any other heads in the room). Boozman thanked Arkansas for flipping both its Senate seats from Democrat to Republican in recent years and noted that those two extra votes have provided a crucial edge in some votes, including a bill “to undo Obamacare,” which, of course, went nowhere under the current administration.
“When we do that next year, we’ll have a Republican president to sign that into law,” Boozman said. Lots of applause. He also promised to hold the line against any U.S. Supreme Court nominee from Obama to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. “We simply won’t let this President move that forward,” he said, to cheers.
Hill didn’t mention Trump by name, but he observed that “voters tonight are telling elected officials all over the country, ‘Hey! You’re not listening to us!'” He then launched into a litany of standard issue complaints against the Obama administration as an explanation for the roiling discontent, including Dodd-Frank banking industry reforms that have resulted in “lost free checking, lost overdraft privileges” for consumers. (Hill is a banker.)
The wall behind the stage was illuminated by two projectors tuned to cable news, the sound muted. 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. The projector on the right was off-color, and its beam of light was aimed too close to the lectern, so I watched as a distorted, yellowed version of Trump’s huge head played like a triumphant hallucination across the faces of French Hill and his family.
As we waited for results from Arkansas to arrive, I ambled around the party. Despite a great deal of talk — much of it shamelessly ebullient on the Democratic side — about the chasm Trump has opened within the Republican Party on a national level, it didn’t feel like a crisis was unfolding at the Embassy Suites hotel bar. The mood of the room was subdued, and in places, rueful. Maybe a little bewildered. Most Arkansas Republicans, I think, are very much still coming to terms with the fact of Donald Trump’s dominance; they’re more leery than they are horrified.
Only one person I spoke to expressed a vigorous distaste for Trump. Everyone else said they’d gladly support him in the general election. (The evening’s spirits were also lifted, I’m sure, by the fact that Arkansas’s down-ballot elections delivered results generally positive for GOP insiders, including incumbent victories in several key legislative seats and a win for conservative favorite Shawn Womack for the state Supreme Court.)
I asked Doyle Webb, the chair of the Republican Party of Arkansas, what he made of the results. Unsurprisingly, he emphasized the positive for the GOP: About 62 percent of Arkansans who cast a ballot in this primary chose to cast a Republican ballot.
“That is unprecedented in our history,” Webb said. “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: For example, in 1988, Democratic primary turnout was at its second highest ever. Dukakis lost.)
What about the fact that Arkansas Republican leaders were lined up so solidly in favor of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (and a smaller contingent for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz)? Trump’s only endorsement in the state came from Sen. Jon Woods (R-Springdale), a lame duck legislator who proclaimed 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.
“When it comes down to who the party nominee is, 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.”
Indeed, Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma) told me she would “support whoever our Republican nominee is.” She also expressed a hope that I’ve heard from many others: President Trump will be mellower than Candidate Trump.
“The reality is that 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 enthused 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 also pointed out that Arkansas voters returned Republican incumbents to office in down-ballot races even as they chose as their presidential nominee an outsider billionaire who’s trampling on cherished conservative institutions and policy positions.
“I don’t think they’re angry at what’s happening in Arkansas. 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,” Hutchinson said.
“It’s not a done deal, but it’s looking like in all probability [Trump] will be the nominee,” the senator admitted. 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 a conservative think tank, Advance Arkansas, was far more sharp in his words. “To me, this whole Trump thing — the rudeness and the crassness and the vulgarity of it — is terrifying,” he said.
What does that mean for the future of the Republican Party, I asked? “I guess it means that new people are going to come into the party, and that we’ll have a lot more crassness and rudeness in American public life due to the example of the nominee. 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 and extremely skilled dissembling. … 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 a tad bitter.
“I don’t know if ‘bitterness’ is really correct. Utter, abject fear,” Greenberg replied.
“Maybe it’s a healthy wake up 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 dislike Trump. But there’s a distinction to be made between the opposition of establishment Republican officials like Jeremy Hutchinson, who seem alarmed primarily by the danger he poses to the party, and the opposition of dedicated movement conservatives like Greenberg.
To Greenberg, an intellectual soldier for free market ideology, the most alarming thing about Trump’s GOP hijacking isn’t the threat it poses to the party’s electoral future — it’s how Trump threatens to corrupt the very idea of what American conservatism means. This is why National Review devoted an entire issue to making the case against him. It’s why conservative blogger Eric Erickson said he won’t vote for Trump in the general election if he wins the nomination. It’s why right-wing outlets like The Federalist are running articles with headlines like “I’ll Take Hillary Clinton Over Donald Trump.” In that piece, writer Tom Nichols gives a requisite conservative rundown of why Clinton “is one of the worst human beings in American politics,” but concludes that “conservatives can recover from four, or even eight, years of Hillary Clinton.” In a Trump administration, though:
Morally unmoored, emotionally unstable, a crony capitalist of the worst kind, Trump will be every bit as liberal as Hillary—perhaps more so, given his statements over the years. He is by reflex and instinct a New York Democrat whose formal party affiliation is negotiable, as is everything about him. He has little commitment to anything but himself and his “deals,” none of which will work in favor of conservatives or their priorities.
More to the point, after four years of thrashing around in the Oval Office like the ignorant boor he is, voters will no longer be able 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.
If Trump is at the top of the ticket, Republicans will likely lose the Senate, but that pales in comparison to the overall discrediting of conservatism that will follow. In pulling down the GOP, Trump will take conservatism with it, and enshrine 30 or 40 more years of liberal dominance, beginning with his own liberal administration.
Earlier in the evening, when I spoke with Bill Kerr, a Maumelle man with two Trump bumper stickers plastered onto his cowboy hat and a Trump yard sign dangling from one hand, I asked about concerns that Trump was insufficiently conservative.
“Oh, horse shit,” he replied.
“Listen, I’m right of Atilla the Hun, and he’s right of me on certain issues. So, no, that’s just horse shit. 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 last night’s event. “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, banging on a table for emphasis. “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 — it’s not their fault. You see, to be a Republican in this state, 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. But 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,” he said.