With the crowded field of Republican hopefuls showing signs of turning the primary into a ballroom brawl, several of the party’s best-known megadonors are trying to keep the peace. Conservative billionaire investor Foster Friess is leading the effort to stanch the infighting, according to the Associated Press, along with two fellow GOP powerbrokers, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts.
“Our candidates will benefit if they all submit to Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, ‘Thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican,’” Friess wrote to Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus in a letter obtained by the AP. “Would you join the effort to inspire a more civil way of making their points? If they drift off the ‘civility reservation,’ let’s all immediately communicate that to them.”
The fact that Adelson and Friess are calling for intra-party peace on the primary trail is ironic, considering their recent pasts. In 2012, they were the chief benefactors, respectively, of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both of who were highly critical of eventual nominee Mitt Romney. Gingrich, whose campaign was kept alive almost single-handedly by Adelson’s millions, was probably the biggest perpetrator of the “Republican-on-Republican rhetorical violence” that the megadonors now want to avoid. The former House speaker took a page out of the liberal playbook when he branded Romney a “vulture capitalist,” and repeatedly told voters that his rival thought they were “stupid.” Santorum, meanwhile, kept his slugfest with Romney going for about four months longer than anyone had expected coming into the 2012 nominating contest, during which he branded Romney “the ultimate flip-flopper” and accused him of “lying to the American people” about the healthcare overhaul he led as the governor of Massachusetts. Adelson and Friess’ newfound appreciation for civility, though, is actually in line with how they’ve suggested they’ll approach 2016; they now appear more interested in backing a winner than picking a personal favorite.
So, will the Republican hopefuls listen to them? Don’t bet on it. Even if the GOP’s donor class were to make civility an explicit requirement of candidates who seek their support, the promise of millions in super PAC cash tomorrow means little to those candidates who need the spotlight today. And with the exception of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, the entire Republican field is desperate for attention. With less than a month until Fox News hands out 10 all-important invites to the first GOP debate, most candidates simply can’t afford to play nice. When a single point in the polls could mean the difference between making it on the national stage and being left off of it, simply generating headlines becomes the name of the game. That’s in large part why Lindsey Graham is attacking Rand Paul, why Paul is lashing out at pretty much everyone, and why Chris Christie has declared that Republicans don’t need Ted Cruz’s “lectures.” Often the easiest way to the top of a pile is by pulling those above you down.
That dynamic would cause problems for a crowded field in a normal cycle, but it spells even more trouble in the current one given it includes a bizarrely coiffed carnival barker who refuses to be ignored. With Donald Trump currently riding high in the polls even an establishment frontrunner like Bush can’t keep quiet. When The Donald pulls his I’m-not-saying-all-Mexicans-are-disease-ridden-rapists-but act, Bush can’t claim to be the only adult in the race and abide by Reagan’s 11th commandment, regardless of who’s calling for calm. “To make these extraordinarily ugly kind of comments is not reflective of the Republican Party,” Bush said in New Hampshire over the weekend after being asked about Trump, adding: “He’s doing this to inflame and incite and to draw attention, which seems to be the organizing principle of his campaign.”
The only way the GOP megadonors will get the relative civility they say they want would be if Fox News were to quit the round-the-clock promotion of Trump and join the can’t-we-all-just-be-friends chorus. But that, of course, isn’t going to happen. Not when conflict and chaos is good for ratings and when Trump is offering a worldview shared by a small but not insignificant sliver of the GOP base. In June alone, the cable network hosted Trump ten separate times for a total of 108 minutes—more than any other candidate running for president. The conservative donor class can implore its party’s White House hopefuls to play nice all they want, but no one’s going to hear them over the sound of The Donald, especially when Fox News keeps handing him the mic.