Viewed through the prism of Trump-style presidential politics, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus’s complaint in March 2013 that his party has a serious image problem and has done “a real lousy job of branding and marketing who we are” seems both prescient and highly naïve.
Priebus at the time was trying to pick up the pieces after Republican Mitt Romney’s poor showing against President Obama in the 2012 presidential election. He talked about the need to overcome an image of the GOP as a room full of “stuffy old guys” like Romney with plenty of money but lacking in the common touch with average Americans, Hispanics and other minorities.
Fast forward to today and the GOP continues to suffer from an image problem – but a far different kind than outlined by Priebus. Donald Trump surged to the head of the GOP field this year with an extraordinarily polarizing campaign of anti-immigrant rhetoric and calls for building a 2,000-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep illegal “criminals” and “rapists” immigrants out.
More recently Trump has strongly defended his widely disputed claim that he “watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed. He was, of course slamming Muslim Americans. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Trump suggested creating databases and watch lists to track all Muslims in the U.S. He also enthusiastically endorsed reviving the use of waterboarding and other torture to deal with ISIS terrorists – when he was not bombing them and their families to smithereens.
Trump had previously joined with 30 mostly Republican governors, GOP and some Democratic lawmakers in calling for a temporary pause in accepting refugee families from war torn Syria and Iraq until authorities could further tighten the vetting process.
On Monday afternoon, Trump upped the ante again– feeding on American fears of another terrorist attack like the one in San Bernardino, California and carried out last week by a heavily armed Muslim couple who authorities say had been inspired by ISIS.
Trump issued a campaign statement calling on U.S. authorities to bar all Muslims from entering the country until the nation’s leaders can “figure out what is going on.”
“Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension,” he said, ahead of an appearance last night at a rally at the USS Yorktown in South Carolina. He was wildly cheered by his supporters there.
“Where this hatred comes from and why -- we will have to determine,” Trump said, less than 24 hours after President Obama delivered a speech from the Oval Office in which he sought to reassure Americans while urging tolerance towards all Muslims and mosques in this country. “We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam,” Obama said.
But Trump had just the opposite take on what needed to be done in the short term.
"Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life," Trump said in his campaign statement.
Immigration law and policy experts voiced shock at the proposal, according to The New York Times. Nancy Morawetz, a professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law, told the newspaper, “It’s unbelievable to have a religious test for admission into the country,” she said, adding that she could not recall any historical precedent for denying immigration based on religion.”
But Morawetz clearly was unfamiliar with the new immigration policy and national security that media-savvy Trump almost single handedly forged since he entered the presidential campaign last spring. If he continues on this path, he’ll redefine the brand of the GOP — something most Republicans can’t abide.
Trump has successfully tapped into a hard core of anti-establishment, anti-government, anti-immigrant and pro-gun Republican conservatives who have helped to catapult his campaign to the top. In the process, he has forced many of his GOP rivals including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson to take similar hard-edged stands in hopes of wooing away some of Trump’s sizeable support. Moreover, many congressional candidates next year will have to figure out ways to adjust to – or work around – the Trump brand if he succeeds in winning the GOP nomination next summer.
As for Priebus’s long ago call for refurbishing the party’s image to make it seem more inclusive to Hispanic voters and other minorities? A majority of Americans as well as a much larger majority of Latinos declares that Trump is hurting the Republican Party's image with “insulting and offensive” rhetoric, according to a new MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist poll released on Monday.
Some 58 percent of adults said that Trump had badly harmed the GOP’s reputation, compared to only 24 percent who say he is helping the image. Among Hispanics who have been crucial to the outcome of past presidential elections, 65 percent said that the billionaire and former reality TV personality had hurt the party’s image, while just 16 percent said he had helped the party.
But among the voters who count the most to Trump right now – meaning Republicans who will vote in the 2016 presidential primaries and caucuses, 43 percent believe that Trump is helping the GOP’s image while 40 percent say he has hurt it.