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Violence and mayhem on the political trail with Donald Trump and Republican primaries

Australians have watched the political chaos of the Republican primary races initially with amusement, then with bewilderment, and now with anxiety. Many Americans are increasingly fearful of what the violence that is increasingly linked to Donald Trump's campaign events portends for the Republican convention and the 2016 general election for president, even as Trump and his followers revel in the mayhem and publicity. How did it come to this?

Donald Trump is waging a campaign that is unique in its crudeness, violent language and complete disregard for the facts. When challenged, Trump's default defence positions are simply to shrug off questions, dissemble, or to engage in personal diatribes on social media. Until very recently the media has been complicit in this, failing to follow-up on serious issues and obvious untruths and gleefully reporting every nasty remark or tweet. Worse, Trump has played these games so well that he has forced his opponents to joust on the same un-presidential playing field.

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At the same time Trump increasingly uses violent threats to outsiders – whether they are illegal immigrants, Muslims or simply those who dare to disagree – and is complicit in the physical violence inflicted by his supporters. Roger Cohen from the New York Times wrote that "Violence is woven into Trump's language as indelibly as the snarl is woven into his features".

The situation is rendered more disastrous for the Republican Party because the only candidate who seems to have any chance of beating Trump – Senator Ted Cruz – is seen by the establishment as just as scary. Cruz's xenophobic and racist rhetoric echoes Trump's, it's just delivered in a less colourful way.

Senator Ted Cruz is seen by the establishment as just as scary.
Senator Ted Cruz is seen by the establishment as just as scary. Photo: AP

Ultimately candidates like Trump and Cruz are creations of the very Republican Party that is now terrified of their power and influence. All the Republican candidates are capitalising on the anti-intellectual element that is increasingly prominent in US politics, especially on the right. Moreover, there are racial animosities and bigotry in American society that readily surface when times are tough and the environment encourages their expression.

The Republican Party's dog whistle appeal to racism started after the Johnston administration enacted the Civil Rights Act in 1964 which enraged southern Republicans led by Barry Goldwater. It was refined by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, leading to what Robert Kagan has called "racial derangement syndrome". Since 2008 this has played out in Republican calls that Obama is anti-American, un-American, non-American, and his policies are wrong and subversive.

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At the same time, Republicans' obdurate obstructionism in the Congress, their failure to come up with meaningful legislation, and most recently the refusal to even consider the President's nominee for the vacant Supreme Court position, have taught Republican voters that political institutions and traditions are things to be ignored or overthrown.

The GOP deserve to be here, in this dreadful quandary. After Mitt Romney's defeat in 2012, a commissioned report indicated that the party's dismissal of minority concerns, intolerance towards gays, celebration of wealth, and fetishism of Ronald Reagan would doom them. It warned that the federal wing is increasingly marginalised and out of touch and unless changes were made, it would be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future. Those recommendations have languished unaddressed.

The changes that were made to the Republican primary process since 2012 have only served to make things worse. The GOP front loaded Super Tuesday 2016 with primaries in a majority of southern states. That has made life easy for Trump and Cruz to garner delegates early. There is much hanging on the results of Republican primaries on March 15 in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina and on March 22 in Arizona and Utah. By April 1, if this was a typical election campaign, the final candidate for the general election will be known.

But this is a very atypical campaign, and nothing is certain about the next few days. The options seem to be just three: Trump as the nominee or a brokered convention or what has been referred to as the "nuclear option".

What would a brokered convention look like? There are few guides and it is quite possible that a party unable to co-ordinate a plan to stop Trump despite the existential threat he poses to it might not be able to organise a coherent brokered convention.

An effective nuclear option must start now: it would involve a clear declaration from authoritative voices that Trump is unacceptable as president, combined with a campaign to attack his character and temperament so hard-hitting that it would shock his ardent supporters into withdrawing their support. Both these options would require some agreement on who the alternative candidate would be and it would require more bravery in the face of Trump's demagoguery than has been seen to date.

The Republican leadership planned a dynastic restoration with Jeb Bush in 2016. Instead they have triggered a revolt of their voters, enabled Trump – a disruptive candidate who is not a conservative and barely a Republican – to emerge as their leader, and potentially signalled the end of the party of Lincoln.

Dr Lesley Russell is an adjunct associate professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney. She is currently in the United States.