If the Republican Party is at a crossroads, consider Donald Trump the NoDoz-popping long-haul trucker behind the wheel of a semi loaded with nitroglycerin.
One week before the first Republican primary debate, the largest field of would-be nominees in American history has been able to agree on one thing: Trump's impending front-and-center appearance on the rostrum will be a calamity for the assembled candidates, and for the party they hope to lead. Trump's opponents have called him "a wrecking ball," "a new low in American politics," a "jackass" with "no class." But top Republican strategist John Weaver may have the most apt description of Trump's impact on the Republican primary yet:
Who could he possibly be talking about? Weaver, a newly hired adviser to Ohio governor and presidential hopeful John Kasich, later blamed that tweet on "narcotic pain medication," but as the tweet went viral, few followers missed the obvious target of his criticism (although some did point out that Kasich, due to low name recognition and late entry into the field, is teetering on the knife's edge of disqualification for the debate).
But behind the snark lies a genuine concern for the integrity of the first Republican primary debate. Republican leadership had thought that by limiting the number of debates and setting a high bar for participation (since adjusted for the Kiddie Table Candidates), it would be able to avoid putting the 2016 Candidate Clown Car on the road. But to quote a line from a play about America's other most famous salesman, attention must be paid. Specifically, to Trump and his never-ending antics.
Even being on the same screen as Trump is a risk. As millions of Americans rubberneck the high-speed collision that is the Trump candidacy, the rest of the field may get stuck in his traffic. Though some candidates may rely on gravitas to draw a stark comparison with Trump's showy, shallow political positions, others may stoop to Trump's level in a bid for the limelight. Think of it like a child misbehaving to get attention, only the child is hoping to be rewarded with nuclear launch codes at the end of their tantrum.
Candidates like Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul and Rick Perry — nationally-recognized politicians who would be real contenders in any other election cycle — are asphyxiating from a lack of political oxygen. Trump's stratospheric, bordering-on-intergalactic name recognition has already won him a guaranteed spot at the center of the Cleveland debate, an element of chaos that no debate prep can possibly account for. Will he be combative or humorous? Self-absorbed or primed for battle? Ronald Reagan or P.T. Barnum?
Regardless of how other candidates attempt to engage, Trump will drag down the legitimacy of every candidate within reach, baiting serious politicians into unwinnable arguments. As the saying goes, never get into a mud-wrestling match with a pig; you both get filthy, but the pig likes it.
Trump, for his part, is confident in his debate abilities.