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Chris Honoré: The 2012 Republican autopsy report

Last week, our news was dominated by the tragic and senseless Brussels bombings. And once again we are reminded that open societies are ultimately powerless to stop fanatics who are bent on inflicting maximum harm to the innocent — in subways and airports or cafes and concerts, all chillingly referred to as “soft targets.”

The patina of civility has been ripped away and given the name “terrorism.” Truth be told, if we are to live in free and open societies we are defenseless in the face of a baroque pathology and evil that knows no restraint. What we must not forget is that this dark and remorseless aspirational caliphate called ISIS is not the face of Islam.

While we may find little reassurance in the flimsy scaffolding of explanations by pundits and politicians, our own national morality play continues, known as the contest for the presidency. And, of course, the candidates are obligated to comment. What Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton said was essentially unremarkable; but then, what is there to say about the unimaginable? “Our thoughts and prayers are …”

But when Republicans Ted Cruz and Donald Trump weighed in, Cruz suggested the police “patrol and secure” Muslim neighborhoods, as if all American Muslims live in specific areas and pose a collective threat. Trump, who wanted to block all Muslims from entering the U.S., citizens or not, agreed.

These are the two Republican front-runners, the result of what the GOP called its post-2012 presidential shellacking “autopsy,” when Mitt Romney lost by 5 million votes to President Obama.

The published report, called the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” was commissioned by the Republican National Committee and praised as being a “hard-headed” assessment, calling for the sclerotic Republicans to create a bigger tent for workers, minorities, youths and women.

The intent was that in 2016, the newly reconstructed party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan would once again take its rightful place in the White House and the restoration of America would be resumed after eight years of what they have referred to as Obama’s “failed presidency.”

What the GOP failed to understand in its liabilities autopsy was that the conservative electorate had changed. And so when Donald Trump rode down the escalator in Trump Towers and announced his candidacy, introducing his “Make America Great Again” slogan, the accepted wisdom was that he would have his red baseball cap handed to him.

To the surprise of the GOP cardinals, who were still reading from the 2012 autopsy script that emphasized big-tent inclusiveness (a report “The Donald” obviously hadn’t read), they heard for the first time that 11 million undocumented Mexicans were going to be rounded up and transported to our southern border and told to have a nice day.

Against all expectations, when Trump took his “politically incorrect” campaign on the road, his message resonated and he began to win while the party elders began to worry. What had they missed? What had their commissioned report missed? Suddenly they were losing control of their party’s message of inclusion and optimism and watched Reagan’s image of the shining city on the hill (sans walls) fade.

What they saw and heard instead was unvarnished anger, frustration and even rage, something that Trump sensed immediately. His rallies were reality television on steroids and the more hyperbolic he became, including ad hominem attacks against his fellow Republican candidates, the larger grew the crowds. His newly crafted stump speech was the politics of resentment aimed at those who felt left behind, and the GOP was devolving into some political version of roller derby.

When asked by the media for policy, Trump gave them a version of “Duck Dynasty.” The crowds loved it. Nuke ISIS? Indeed. Torture? Waterboarding and more. Our military? Bigger and better. Second Amendment? Totally and literally. Pro-choice? Not even. Climate change? Unproven. And so on.

The fact is that his disturbing version of the presidency is pure fantasy, ignoring Congress, the Supreme Court or the Constitution. Being president is a Trump brand, not an office. He just better get the nomination — or else. A deal’s a deal.

That 2012 autopsy report? A distant memory.

Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.