by Jonah Goldberg | October 24, 2015 12:04 am
Most of the politically savvy people I know are still confident that Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee for president.
Some are even dismissive. They tell me that his poll numbers are a statistical mirage because they count too many people who will not actually vote in Republican primaries or caucuses. They point to historical trends that always show “outsiders” doing well early in the process, only to underperform when voters take their responsibilities more seriously. Just this week, they cite the fact that Ben Carson is now way out in front of Trump in Iowa, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
Mike Murphy, the head of the pro-Jeb Bush super PAC Right to Rise USA, told Bloomberg News this week that Trump is a “false zombie front-runner” because he can never be elected and therefore can’t be a real front-runner. I’m not sure I get this logic. Arguably, Barry Goldwater couldn’t get elected in 1964. That doesn’t mean he was never the front-runner, does it?
Regardless, I hope the Trump doubters are right. Even though they — and I — have been wrong on so much about his performance so far.
And that is what makes me less certain. By any of the standards and rules that defined the last 40 years of American politics, Trump’s candidacy should have imploded as a joke a long time ago. That simply has not happened. He’s been the front-runner for a long time, over three months.
My Trump-skeptic friends point to the fact that Rudy Giuliani was ahead in the polls for 11 months, from February 2007 to January 2008, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls (though The Washington Examiner’s Byron York notes he was the front-runner even longer in other polls; the RCP average only began in February of 2007). Giuliani never won a single primary and was out of the race when his all-in-for-Florida strategy blew up in his face.
Others say the better analogy is to Howard Dean, who was the longtime Democratic front-runner in 2004, running an “outsider” campaign against his own party’s establishment. He looked invincible right up until the moment he was vinced in Iowa.
The problem with all of these analogies, it seems to me, is that they are comparing apples and oranges. Giuliani, Dean and all the other outsiders who failed to close the deal were constrained by those rules and standards of politics I referred to earlier. They had to avoid gaffes. They had to demonstrate they were knowledgeable about the issues. They couldn’t flip-flop — often mid-sentence — the way Trump can with carefree abandon. If they hurled childish insults at opponents and critics, it would have cost them dearly.
Meanwhile, Trump keeps on a’Trumping, flouting those constraints. His unfavorable numbers have actually come down in the process. It’s a cliché to say he’s defying the laws of political gravity, but it’s true. He respects only the laws of entertainment gravity.
And those laws may ultimately prove his undoing. Eventually, his shtick could get old, even for his fans. There are signs that this is happening. But there are also signs that he’s improving as a candidate. His interviews are getting sharper and less manic. Earlier this month, reporters kept asking Trump what it would take for him to drop out of the race. It seems to me what they were really asking was, “When will things get back to normal?”
The hard truth: they just might not get back to normal.
But let’s assume the skeptics are right and Trump eventually goes away. What then? To listen to some of the consultants and graybeards, all will be right with the world. They will say, “See, you freaked out over Trump for nothing.”
That strikes me as exactly the wrong response. Whether or not Trump is a flash in the pan, what worries me is what his candidacy says about the pan. If you survive a heart attack, that doesn’t mean you should go back to the diet and lifestyle that gave you the heart attack in the first place.
Whether or not he gets the nomination, Trump should be seen as a wake-up call. His entirely cynical exploitation of immigration — Trump criticized Mitt Romney in 2012 for being too harsh on immigration — tapped into an entirely sincere dissatisfaction with the status quo. His brilliant leveraging of his celebrity for political gain reveals much about the calcified state of American politics. Trump may fade away, but the forces driving Trumpism are more enduring and must be taken seriously.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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