Review: A Smart, Insider's Look at the Republican Presidential Clown Car

The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House

By McKay Coppins

Little, Brown   400 pp. $28

By Jim Swearingen

While the Democrats celebrated on election night 2012, so did some well-known Republicans, including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump.  For this group – Republicans who were considering a presidential run in 2016 – Mitt Romney’s ignominious defeat meant a race without a Republican incumbent in four years, and the distinct possibility that one of them might be the next GOP standard bearer.

The psychological, political, and moral foibles of the aspiring Republican candidates – on their way to the nomination, or to losing it -- are the subject of The Wilderness, a smart and entertaining campaign book by McKay Coppins, a politics writer for BuzzFeed. Offering up one revealing, behind-the-scenes story after another, he covers their histories -- going back decades -- up through the present, when their political futures remain very much up in the air.

Each of these political hopefuls is striving to remake himself into the image of the next Republican prophet, one able to lead the GOP out of the wilderness of an eight-year presidential exile (the sad state of affairs that gave Coppins his title).  Along the way, these candidates all work tirelessly to redefine themselves as an acceptable option for the party base, a crucible that forces each of them to betray former principles, former positions, and former allies.

Jeb Bush shows up initially as a reluctant contender, but a coldblooded one.  Bush, who is both repelled at the prospect of entering a protracted Republican primary battle and desperate to stay relevant, was legendary in Florida as a highly successful and quietly ruthless governor.  As a presidential candidate, he kneecaps Romney, who is considering another presidential run, by hiring every capable campaign staffer he can find to prevent them from working for the competition.

Deciding that Marco Rubio is his next serious threat, Bush allegedly resurrects a whisper campaign (from the Charlie Crist playbook) about the Florida Senator’s “zipper problem,” claiming extra-marital affairs, a possible abortion, and a clandestine second family. This is the paradox of Jeb: privately, he reveals a Mafioso’s blood lust to take out whatever he can’t buy up. Publicly, he appears flummoxed at the ungentlemanliness of candidates who engage in just the sort of crass tactics that he does.

Rubio, for his part, desperately longs to carry the torch for a new generation of immigrant Americans. But he struggles with little success to find an immigration middle ground that is palatable both to his party’s xenophobic base and to his fellow Cuban-Americans. At one touching moment his mother leaves him a voicemail, begging that he not throw immigrants under the bus – a plea he still seems to be struggling with. Rubio also has a prickly relationship to navigate with Bush; the young Senator made clear he had no intention of waiting in line behind his former mentor.

Before long Donald Trump jumps into the arena. Finding that the national media doesn’t take his threats to run seriously, he announces his candidacy before an enthusiastic crowd that includes paid actors and curious tourists.  When Trump realizes the appeal of his Howard Beale, mad-as-hell populism, he rids his stream-of-consciousness chatter of any kind words for universal health care, abortion rights, or Hillary Clinton.

In the process, Trump hones a feverish campaign shtick, fear-mongering about immigrants, pandering to gun rights activists, and saber rattling for a trade war with China – all the while assuring the electorate that his presidency will be so amazing, you won’t even believe it.

Ted Cruz is a rabble-rouser of a different, more anarchic sort.  Willing to play a two-week game of chicken with the President over defunding Obamacare, Cruz natters on about liberty and freedom while a government shutdown threatens to trash a fragile American economy. That scorched earth policy toward anything and everything resembling federalism tanks the GOP in the polls. But it makes him a Tea Party hero. For Cruz, extremism in pursuit of ambition is no vice.

Rand Paul meanwhile, attempts to trade in his natural irreverence for a more conciliatory, pious tone. He temporarily shelves much of his Libertarian philosophy and outrage at fat cat, establishment Republicans who wave the flag as they send teenage soldiers on multiple deployments. And attempting to build a bridge with religious conservatives, his campaign is said to have compiled an Evangelical “playbook” to teach Paul how to look and sound more Christian.

There is a lot of high-level political gossip in The Wilderness, but timing is a tricky matter for campaign books.  By choosing to publish in medias res Coppins gains some things, but necessarily loses other, including a natural end to his story.  Where Coppins leaves off, Scott Walker has just dropped out, Bobby Jindal is still in, and the narrative is several paces behind the Republicans’ latest antics.

We are not treated to an analysis of the candidates’ reactions to last month’s Paris bombings, and Ben Carson’s appeal goes unexplored – a notable omission given his recent (though now faltering) poll numbers, and his confused declarations about refugees, West Point scholarships, and the effects of incarceration on male sexuality.

The Wilderness might have ended better with the choosing of the Republican nominee, but many of Coppins’ scoops might be old news by then and there could be less interest in this odd-ball assortment of would-be statesmen.

Whatever the timing, The Wilderness is helped immensely by the fact that Coppins is such a talented researcher and compelling writer. At times his irreverence is reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s sober and more lucid political pieces, particularly when Coppins himself becomes an accidental character in the story. A foray into the “fever swamps” of Trumpworld earns him some amusing—and characteristically petty—retribution from The Donald.

The ultimate message of The Wilderness is that none of this Republican murder of crows is what he (or she) claims to be to the party base. To students of politics this comes as no surprise. It is axiomatic that politicians mold themselves to the public’s tastes. Candidate after candidate shows brief moments of candor, reflection, and statesmanship in this book, only to jettison those nobler instincts when the hard right pitches an ideological fit.

What is perhaps most striking about the Republican base is its political naïveté. All successful politicians ultimately acquire power, at which point they become responsible for whatever follows. Yet responsibility is anathema to the base. Their nihilistic position echoes the youth culture of the 1960’s, “Don’t trust anyone in power,” ignoring the inevitable fact that anyone they elect will assume power – and thereby lose their trust.

In his classic analysis Why Americans Hate Politics, E.J. Dionne warned, “A nation that hates politics will not long thrive as a democracy” – a warning that feels all too relevant in this presidential election cycle. The present-day Republican Party and its troupe of carnival barker candidates are peddling a mentality that leaves little room for sober, measured governance.

Whenever the Republicans’ deliverer does come down from the mountaintop, he or she will find these unruly characters dancing before a golden calf of atavism. Their current path, which McKay Coppins maps out, is destined to lead them deeper into the wilderness.

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based educator and a writer. The views expressed here are his own. Follow Jim on Twitter at @Jim_Swearingen