The Great Republican Fire of 2016

The Republicans started their own fire. But Donald Trump is a whole new kind of arsonist and the party's now burning out of control

There are two competing descriptions of what's going on in the Republican Party right now. One, (which appeals to Donald Trump's modus operandi in business) is a "hostile takeover" of the Grand Old Party. The other, that Trump is the party's own Frankenstein's monster and they are reaping what they have sowed.

There is, as is often the case, truth in both. The Republicans did not want this revolution from this man and they certainly didn't want it months from a general election. Trump is a parasite on the party and his voting base, while not big enough to win that election in November, is looking big enough to seriously damage the party. He is breaking the party's rules and alienating those who have led it.

But I find more to like in the second version of events.

The Republicans have toyed with fire for decades. Arguably US politics has a long tradition of corruption and the Democrats are far from immune. But since the southern strategy emerged in the 1960s under Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater (using racism to wedge southern Democrats away from their political roots), it has used the more divisive tactics.

The Reagan revolution dismantled a generation or two of policies aimed at bolstering and protecting the middle class, driving inequality and wealth to the wealthiest in the name of opportunity.

Then, George W. Bush used fear of the other to prosecute his "war on terror".

I'm not in any way saying that the Democrat leaders amidst this were without sin, but the Republicans always pushed the envelope.

More recently came the mad Birther movement and the anger of the Tea Party, with its willingness to undermine, even close, the entire machine of government to make a point. Both hid fear of change (which is understandable) and racism (which is not) near to their heart. Politics as "the art of compromise" was abandoned.

These were fires lit at the door of democracy, used to scare people away from their opponents. They were cynically fanned in the hope that it would ensure that democracy -- and the government that operated within it -- remained small. The political ideology giving it fuel was simply small government beliefs in new drag.

What the Republicans didn't appreciate is that their party too lived in the house of democracy, and that fires once lit can be impossible to control.

Those small fires set by the Republicans are now burning out of the party's control, and the "establishment" are forced to play firefighter, trying hose down the flames now threatening to engulf their party.

Donald Trump was once a chosen fire-starter, as the GOP egged on his efforts on the Birther front, questioning Barack Obama's citizenship. Instead of declaring it the "moon landing" nonsense that it is, they hoped to let it burn up the Obama presidency.

But Trump is an arsonist extraordinaire; he's off the leash and beyond the reach of the party he's trying to lead. They have become spectators, because Trump is not looking to lead a movement or follow a coherent set of ideas. Their rules and ambitions are not his.

Trump is, in the worst sense, his own man. He does not believe in anything, as his many switches of position have showed. His goal is entirely individual, his campaign a massive ego trip. Look at his obsession with the size of his hands; it's all about him.

And so we have a position where the immediate past Republican nominee for president is calling the presumptive nominee a "fraud" and urging his party members to vote for anyone but Trump.

At the risk of extending the metaphor to breaking point, Romney has, it seems, been sent out to burn the village to save the village. Who knows what will remain, but the Republican leadership are doing all they can to ensure it won't be a village of Trump towers.

As conservative commentator David Frum has pointed out, in 1964 libertarian Barry Goldwater even got "something like an endorsement" out of the great moderate Dwight Eisenhower, though Eisenhower was no fan. So this is unprecedented.

I can only hope precedent reasserts itself soon, however late in this campaign. For months I've kept waiting for the norm to re-emerge, for the system to steady its own boat, for the wisdom of the crowd to triumph. Sadly, it seems the Republican's fire has consumed too much common sense in that party. Perhaps a contested convention can save some charred remains, but surely the Republican's chances of actually winning this year are beyond saving.

What gives me most hope is that, of course, the Republican Party is not the American people. I still assume that the maths and maps of US politics and the decency and wisdom of middle America will kick in. They will hose this down. Once the vote extends beyond the angry white people inside the GOP, you'd assume that the Latino, Black, young and women's vote would rally against Trump.

 It will need to rally around someone who is far from squeaky clean herself and knows something of political fire-starting. But Clinton also has a sense of the limits, of how to survive in the fire without being consumed by it. And right now she must be counting her lucky stars and thinking, 'surely I can't lose it from here'.