Conventional wisdom among the US chattering classes and political elite started out with the certainty that Donald Trump’s candidacy for president was, literally, a fool’s errand – that it was simply a goofy rich guy running for something he had no hope of attaining. Now things are more complicated. Many are resigned to a Trump nomination, though horrified and perplexed by it. Others are still hanging on in the land of denial, hoping for a Rubio revival. Magic is in the air. Fantastic scenarios are being spun whereby the Inconvenient Trump will disappear on nomination day to be replaced at the altar by a more acceptable bridegroom – perhaps even Sir Mitt Romney of the Order of 47 Percent or Bonnie Prince Paul Ryan. However, among the political pundit classes, beaten down by a higher than customary level of being wrong – usually 80 percent of the time – there is also an admirably intellectual search for answers to the Aeternal Question: What is wrong with Reality? How, they ask, is it possible for a megalomaniacal 70 year old businessman from New York with three marriages and four bankruptcies to be leading the Party of Lincoln and winning in the Land of Jefferson Davis? Why is this Pied Piper successful, and what is he doing to the Republican Party?
The latest to ask such questions is Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post, who has come up with an elaborate theory, using a rather irrelevant baseball analogy to blame the debacle on analysis by political scientists. Basically, his argument is that political scientists have developed detailed theories of why candidates succeed or fail, and the Republican leaders have internalized these theories so well that they were lulled into a false sense of security until now, when it is already too late. As Drezner argues:
“When Trump announced that he was running last summer, his lack of establishment support and high unfavorables made it extremely easy to very smart people to confidently assert that he had almost no chance at securing the GOP nomination. …..
“So why has it been proved wrong? My hypothesis is that GOP decision-makers also read the same analyses and concluded that they did not need to do anything to stop Trump. Sure, his poll numbers stayed robust even after he kept saying racist and insulting things, but there were good auxiliary hypotheses to explain why that was the case. They kept reading analysis after analysis in 2015 about how Donald Trump had little chance of winning the GOP nomination. They read smart take after smart take telling them that Trump didn’t have a chance. Even as the media covered Trump, even as late as the South Carolina debate, pundits were also talking about how his latest transgressive comment would doom his chances.
“So GOP party leaders didn’t take any action. Except that the reason smart analysts believed Trump had no chance was because they thought GOP leaders would eventually take action.”
As theories go, this is fairly clever, but I have a simpler theory that has the added advantage of being correct. Donald Trump is winning the Republican nomination because he is calling the bluff of the Republican establishment.
For more than three decades, the Republican Party has been turning a large part of their electorate into a population of zombies who respond reliably to specific dog whistles, conspiracy theories and false memes come every election season. These triggers play on religious zeal, nationalism, suspicion of government power, fear of anarchy, economic insecurity, social anxieties, xenophobia, residual racism, and a host of other powerful emotions that exist in all societies. The so-called Republican elites have learned to exploit these emotions with finesse to win elections while, in fact, serving the interests of their paymasters in lofty mansions and corporate boardrooms. This project, implemented through so-called conservative “think” tanks, talk radio and Fox News with financial support from a few choice billionaires, has been wildly successful. It has allowed the Republican Party to hold the White House for most of the last thirty six years, and to claw their way back to power in Congress after a long exile.
But the construction of this exquisite system with precise buttons that can be pushed to specific ends has not gone unnoticed. One of those who has apparently noticed with great perceptiveness is one Donald J. Trump, who is not a billionaire because he is a fool. With a deep understanding of the zombification of the Republican electorate, and with the financial resources and the ambition to act on this knowledge, Donald Trump has gone about the business of systematically pressing every button that the Republican Party had built so carefully into their system – except that, in signature Trump style, he has pressed each one ten times as hard as the delicate hands of any Republican political consultant would ever have dared to do. Where a Karl Rove or Lee Atwater might have run a subtly racial campaign commercial or pushed a little xenophobia, Trump has promised high walls, carpet bombings and full-blown torture. He is offering far-right voters trained on little pieces of candy a whole chocolate factory, and they’re eating it up. The Republican elites have been disarmed because Trump is using their own arms to steal their electorate. And the reason they can’t do much about it is not that they haven’t recognized their predicament, but that they recognize it all too well. Their problem is that, to stop Trump, they have to disown the very “ideas” on which they have built their own electoral successes. At best, all they can say is that their wall would be a bit lower, the carpet of their bombing a bit smaller, and their torture limited to waterboarding. That’s a lousy argument to be stuck with!
In recent years, after two humiliations at the hands of Barack Obama, some Republican leaders had begun to understand that the scorched earth approach that had begun with Nixon’s Southern Strategy and culminated in the know-nothing frenzy of the Tea Party was a long-term loser. In a country with rapidly changing demographics and an increasingly liberal populace, a fresh start was needed. Poor Jeb Bush, bless his heart, tried half-heartedly to suggest this by equating immigration with “an act of love”. Then Donald Trump slapped him a few times hard across the face, and that was that. What Trump has unleashed is the monster created by the Republican Party for its own purposes. As always, when the monster gets free, it goes for the nearest prey first – and therein lies a lesson for Democrats.
Barring some bizarre turn of events, Donald Trump will get the Republican nomination for President. Given his dismal favorability ratings, Democrats are quite confident that they can beat him with a good candidate like Hillary Clinton – and that calculation is likely to be correct. Other Republican candidates such as Kasich or Rubio would, in fact, pose a greater challenge to the Democrats in November. However, Donald Trump has already shown himself to be a master of mass psychology and an astute reader of political opportunities. It is naïve to think that he will approach the general election with exactly the same narrative he is deploying now. What is more likely is that he will reshape it to perform the same kind of jiu-jitsu on Democrats that he has been using against the Republican establishment. While the Democrats have not exploited negative emotions nearly as much as the Republicans – liberals never can – they too have built an electoral machine based on resentments, identity politics and more than a few false pretenses. Donald Trump is fully capable of exploiting these just as he has exploited the triggers on the Right. It is hard to say exactly what he will do, but betting against the possibility is not a wise move, as Jeb Bush and his superPAC can testify.
And for those who think that Trump will never be able to get away with switching to contradictory positions after getting the nomination, there is a lesson in how he has navigated the Republican primaries. He has made a habit of following up almost every extreme statement he makes with a half-retraction – and occasionally outright reversal – in short order. And he has paid no price for it. This too has perplexed the pundits, but it should not. Trump is not running on policy; he is running on persona. In the primaries, he has become the personification of the Tea Party’s dreams – the very hero they had been waiting for, and heroes are seldom doubted by their worshippers. After all, every deity that humans have ever worshipped has had one attribute in common with all others: Capriciousness. Today, Donald Trump strides across the landscape of the Right like a god who is not bound by trifling things such as consistency or accountability. What terrain he will haunt tomorrow is anyone’s guess.
It is still more likely than not that Donald Trump will falter at some point in his quest for the White House. Hillary Clinton is still more likely to beat him than not in the general election. And there is a distinct possibility that a brokered Republican convention will lead to a third-party run by Trump if the party tries to install another nominee. This too will likely result in a Democratic victory. But the Democrats would do well not to take anything for granted, and begin looking for ways in which they can take down Trump, the Idea.