I think a lot of political commentators (including me) need to apologize to Donald Trump for seriously underestimating him. We thought he would be a sideshow in the election, Herman Cain redux, someone who provides great entertainment for a brief time before the ridiculousness of his candidacy sinks in and he fades away. But looking back we should have realized that he is no dummy. It is true that he is not a self-made man. He started out with rich parents and inherited the family real-estate company but he did manage to use it as a springboard to make a lot more money later and that requires a considerable level of shrewdness and ruthlessness and determination that is standing him in good stead in his unlikely election campaign. We were just too blinded by his massive ego and penchant for outrageous statements, boastfulness, and over-the-top buffoonery to see that when it comes to advancing his own interests, he is no fool but has proven himself to be a canny operator.
But there still continues to be this curious belief in some circles that Trump’s sudden rise to the top of the polls is an example of the old adage of “the brighter the flame, the sooner the ash” and that his numbers will drop as people start thinking seriously about politics and actually voting in the primaries. This was the view expressed on NPR by veteran political analyst Stu Rothenberg who thinks that Trump’s star will soon fade, saying “The closer we get to the real process of selecting a Republican presidential nominee, the more that voters will look for other qualities – experience, maturity, a measured evaluation of public policy.”
I am not sure what the basis is for this thinking. After all, polls have been reasonably good predictors of how people actually vote. Why would Rothenberg think that people will tell pollsters one thing and then when it comes time to vote, do something different? What makes him think that voters are looking for “experience, maturity, a measured evaluation of public policy’ when the evidence does not support that, at least for a large number of voters?
I suspect that this is largely wishful thinking, based on the incredulity of political insiders that someone who is so outside the norm of politics as usual as Trump, someone so unfiltered and so disdainful of currying favor with the political establishment, could be doing so well. After all, while politicians love to campaign ‘against Washington’, we all know that it is all bogus, just window dressing to attract the rubes, and that they actually love Washington and love being part of that insider clique.
What Trump’s popularity is making clear is that many voters are looking someone who expresses the inchoate anger that they feel against this incestuous system that is rigged against them. And this is where Trump, maybe inadvertently, has struck gold, his favorite color. It is no secret that the public despises elected officials, with polls ranking members of Congress at or near the bottom of professions for honesty and ethics, even below car salespersons. But elite political discourse treats political figures respectfully even when they don’t deserve it. So when Trump comes along, blasting all the other candidates for president as dummies and losers, this resonates with people who totally agree with this sentiment and enjoy hearing someone finally say it out loud. Although there has been considerable tut-tutting about Trump saying that John McCain is no hero, I think it will not hurt him because McCain is also seen as someone whose incessant preening presence in the public eye is grating and people enjoy seeing him taken down a few notches.
Thanks to commenter Reginald Selkirk, I came across this piece where conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer expresses the sense of incredulity and disdain within elite political circles, where he bemoans the dominant role that Trump is having on the Republican primary race and the fact that his shadow is eclipsing pretty much everyone else.
Well, he’s tapping in, but he’s essentially — he’s done it in a way that the word offensive is too weak. It’s an insult. An entire immigrant group. He did not make a distinct between legal and illegal immigrants. That’s his entire campaign. All our problems are from Mexico, from China, from Saudi Arabia, and Japan. He will make them pay. But that elevates him to a guy actually with ideas.
These are eruptions, barstool eruptions. And the pity is this. This is the strongest field of Republican candidates in 35 years. You could pick a dozen of them at random and have the strongest cabinet America’s had in our lifetime and instead all of our time is spent discussing this rodeo clown…
Trump has decided that our problem is we need essentially an economic declaration of war on Mexico. And that’s where all this is headed. Tapping in, yes, but that’s not — politics has to be slightly above tapping in. It’s a way to tap in and respond responsibly. He says I’ll build a wall and I’ll make Mexico pay. I’ve been supporting building a wall for ten years, but the idea you’re going to make Mexico pay is simply absurd, but he likes to tap in and to play on that. That’s not serious politics.
But Krauthammer is, as usual, looking in the wrong place to assign blame. The question he should be asking is how it came to be that Trump has found such fertile soil for his ideas. The answer surely is that the Republican party and its allies in the media have over a long time created the fever swamp that Trump is now exploiting, using fear-mongering racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic rhetoric, thinking that it could be exploited to serve the ends of the party. But they did it using coded language. What they did not anticipate was that someone rich and egotistical enough would come along that did not care about the party at all and would use it as a vehicle to serve his own ends, saying openly what they been saying more guardedly. And the audience that had been primed by dog whistles reacted joyously to what they likely saw as an unapologetic and bracing frankness in endorsing their beliefs and prejudices.
This has to be alarming for the party. The problem for the Republican leadership is that none of the weapons they have to force someone out of the race is effective against Trump. He does not need their money and he does not seek their endorsements or approval. And he will not hesitate to blast anyone who dares to criticize him. Apparently there are plots to try and exclude him from the debates.
Many national Republican officials are increasingly resigned to Mr. Trump’s looming presence. At a meeting of the Republican Governors Association this week in Aspen, Colo., donors and operatives mused about how to prevent him from hijacking the debate.
One idea that came up was to urge three leading candidates — Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor; Mr. Walker; and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — to band together and state that they would not participate in any debate in which Mr. Trump was present, using his refusal to rule out a third-party bid as a pretext for taking such a hard line. The thinking, according to a Republican involved in the conversations, was that the lesser-funded prospects who have been eclipsed by Mr. Trump would follow suit, and the TV networks airing the debates would be forced to bar Mr. Trump in order to have a full complement of candidates.
Good luck with that. That would be a very dangerous strategy because if he is shut out of the debates, it will simply reinforce Trump’s message that the party leadership silences anyone who is genuinely outside of Washington. It also faces the usual problem of who will bell the cat. None of the candidates will want their fingerprints on any plan that tries to use insider chicanery to exclude Trump because that will enrage Trump’s supporters whom they too covet. Furthermore Trump’s trump card is that he can always run as a third party candidate and has that made no secret that it is on his mind, and will likely do so if he thinks that the party is treating him unfairly and has the money to carry out the threat. That would be a disaster for Republicans, bringing back memories of Ross Perot in 1992, except worse because Perot drew support from both parties while Trump’s is largely Republican.
I have no idea how this will all play out. But it is safe to say that few would have expected this Republican primary race to be so gripping as pure spectacle, if not very enlightening in terms of policy discussions.