Two months ago I boldly predicted that Donald Trump would be out of the presidential race before the first votes were counted in January. Can I have that one back?
Despite every logical reason (logical in terms of traditional politics) – like, for example that he can’t possibly be elected – to expect that his balloon would burst, as have those of pompous buffoons like him in the past, Mr. Trump is not only still around; he’s still leading on all of the national polls. So, I suppose it’s fair to ask: What’s going on? Is the party really going to nominate this guy?
Well, for openers, I think we have to acknowledge, at least I now will acknowledge, that it is possible (possible as in plausible). If Trump continues to appeal to that large segment of the Republican base that hates everything about government and thinks the more maverick you sound, the better you’d be for the country, then he most definitely could win enough delegates in the primaries and caucuses to be a viable candidate at the convention next summer.
And with the party unlikely, at this point, to have an establishment candidate with a groundswell of support, any candidate who is viable at the convention could emerge with the nomination. That isn’t a prediction; it’s just recognizing reality.
Of course, it’s also reality to note that at this point, in terms of a horse race, we aren’t even at the starter’s gate yet. The horses, such as they are, are prancing around the track, showing their stuff, but they really haven’t been tested with so much as a caucus, let alone a primary. To be sure, that will change quickly once the calendar turns to 2016, and if Trump (or any candidate scores a big win early) it can change the landscape in a New York minute.
But in the meantime, much of the Republican talk is still focused on Trump, and the media are all over him and his continuing ability to get headlines by saying outrageous things.
I think I have figured out his method. He picks up on unrest from his base of supporters and says something absurd (like we need to keep all Muslims from coming into the country, presumably by asking everyone if they are Muslims when they seek entry). Then, after the media make a lot of noise about how crazy the idea is, Trump will make it sound slightly less crazy (like “it will all be very humane” or “there will be exceptions for citizens”). Then, when the polls show that he has actually gained support (or at least not lost any), he will circle back towards his original outrage. (Or, if there are signs of push-back – as with the claim that Muslims were dancing in the Jersey City streets after 9/11 – he’ll make the original statement sound less outrageous than it was.)
Some might call him a charlatan or a demagogue. He’s certainly a little of both. I think of him more as a megalomaniac, which is a person who thinks he or she has unlimited power or importance. If you listen with even a little objectivity to Trump, that’s what comes across. He thinks he’s great at everything, at least at everything he sets out to do.
And if you look at his career, that’s the image he has always tried to create. Trump Towers, mega-model wives, always in public view for one business venture or TV show or political campaign: this is a man who desperately needs to think that he is superior to everyone else. And he proudly displays that need with a machismo that would be laughable were it not so pathetic.
But in the meantime, he has to be viewed as a potential nominee of one of the two major political parties in America. And that fact definitely isn’t laughable.
In chats with some of my die-hard Republican friends, the spin I’m hearing is that Trump doesn’t just appeal to Republicans. I don’t doubt the truth of that statement, but my reply is that, for now, he’s the Republicans’ problem. And he’ll remain their problem so long as he is leading in the polls (and even more so if he wins a few early primaries or caucuses).
That he might ultimately become a problem for Democrats hasn’t gotten much attention yet. Hillary Clinton is far more concerned about a possible Marco Rubio nomination than she is about Donald Trump or even Ted Cruz. Actually, I think the Clinton brain-trust still most fears a mainstream candidate like Chris Christie or John Kasich (or even Jeb Bush, if he weren’t so embarrassingly inept and hapless). The biggest threat to Clinton is someone who could appeal to those independents who are independents because they think carefully and vote for the person who will make the best president. That is the sliver of the electorate that would decide the election if a legitimately qualified candidate emerges with the Republican nomination.
If Trump (or Cruz, who is Trump in a suit, if you get the metaphor) gets the nomination, it will be tough for the Republicans to hold the Senate, let alone win the White House. We saw this kind of thing in 1964 when Barry Goldwater led the Republicans to a massive defeat that gave veto-proof control of Congress to the Democrats. I wouldn’t predict anything that dramatic if Trump or Cruz actually wins the nomination, but many down-line Republicans would suffer voter defection if one of those two (but especially Trump) heads the national ticket.
So, yes, Trump is the Republicans problem for now, but if, just if, he somehow finds a way to spread his appeal more broadly and actually get elected, ah, then we’re talking about something far more serious. Then he becomes the nation’s problem, and, potentially the world’s. I’m not comparing him to Adolph Hitler, but he could engender that kind of pseudo-nationalism.
It wouldn’t be a movement that he’d lead; rather, it would be one that grew out of his megalomania and, ultimately consumed it and the rest of us along with it.