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I’m now convinced that Donald Trump will change the game for Republicans

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures and declares "You're fired!" at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, June 17, 2015.
Reuters/Dominick Reuter
Double down.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

I didn’t want to write about Donald Trump’s biennial flirtation with politics because I didn’t think it would matter to anyone who doesn’t host a low-rated political news show.

After all, Trump is a man who makes money by putting his name on things, and to do that, you need your name known, and the credulous spectacle of a presidential campaign is a great place to achieve that aim (and sell hastily assembled books). However ridiculous his behavior, he wouldn’t really affect the outcome of the election.

But then I interviewed an Uber driver. He was praising Travis Kalanick, the car-service platform’s libertarian founder, for building the company. “He’s making money, but he’s allowing other people to make money,” Moises Abrego-Flores, who came to the US from Mexico in 1974, told me. Asked about taxi drivers upset with the company, he says “it’s a free market economy!” He not a fan of the liberal New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.

But then he changed the subject: “I hate that Donald Trump,” he told me. He hates him because of Trump’s assertion that Mexicans are criminals and “rapists.” Trump’s offensive schtick has inspired outrage and helped pull him into second place in Republican voter polls.

But Abrego-Flores is the kind of voter that the Republican party is always planning to win over: Sure, he’s part of an ethnic group, Latinos, associated with the Democratic party, but we can appeal to his values of hard work and entrepreneurship. And it’s a believable strategy this year, with serious Republican candidates like Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush displaying their real connections to Hispanic culture. Even liberal strategists are concerned about the possibility.

But what if these GOP candidates are standing on a stage next to Trump at debates? My first assumption was that Trump would be a gift to the GOP, and that candidates could win centrist plaudits by lambasting him as offensive and un-serious.

But his fellow candidates didn’t come out swinging after his remarks. They’re competing for some of the same white conservative voters that are lining up, at least rhetorically, for Trump. And even Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee who is, theoretically, in a position to police the extremes of the party, merely said the comments were “not helpful.” It’s pretty tough when a department store is taking a harder line against racial slurs than a political party.

So how not helpful will Trump be to the Republican cause? It depends on whether he stays long enough to make it to the debates and joins the other candidates on stage. It’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t hurt, as Republicans try to chip away at the Democratic advantage among Latino voters.

“He’s a carnival sideshow that just sucks the air out of the room and steals the spotlight just for the simple fact that he wants to have the headlines,” long-time Republican strategist Ron Bonjean told the Hill. ”We don’t want him standing on stage with other Republicans.”

That tableau would probably be hard to stomach for Latinos, who already see the party as a haven for those who bash the Mexicans who do their work for them.

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