I wish I could promise that this is the last time that I or any other contributor will write about The Donald. Alas, I can’t. For cultural and political commentary he’s just too good -- the gift that just keeps on giving. (Gordon Marino’s piece below, which I just saw as I posted this, is another example of excellent mining in this rich vein.)
Regarding Trump’s success so far, here’s the best way I can frame it. Anyone who plays or watches sports knows the endgame reality of the dwindling win chance, a.k.a. Really Long Odds. In football, it’s what you face when you’re down nine points with two minutes to play, and your opponent has the ball. In order for you to win, the following sequence of events (or something very like it) has to occur: 1) Your opponent has to fumble the ball away, and you have to recover; 2) you have to drive down the field and score a touchdown in a minute; 3) you have to attempt an onside kick and successfully recover the ball; and 4) you have to drive thirty yards and kick the game-winning field goal within thirty seconds.
Do that – do all of that -- and you will win. But each and every one of those things has to happen. And how likely is that? A narrow path, a perfect storm: choose your metaphor. Face this situation fifty times, and you’ll win once.
Back in August, when he announced his candidacy, Trump was facing those kinds of odds. Like everyone else, I expected him to fail. But so far, almost everything has broken his way. The game-theory dynamic of the Republican contest, a variation on the Prisoner’s Dilemma, has worked perfectly for him. All winter, Trump could prevail only as long as multiple opponents stayed in; the other candidates all knew this, but none would drop out, because they all believed Trump couldn’t ultimately prevail; and each wanted to be the one left standing when he fell. Out of this logical dilemma he built a tenuous lead that grew gradually stronger. Interestingly, now that it’s all but impossible for any other candidate to win a majority of delegates, the game-theory dynamic has effectively been reversed; as Mitt Romney noted, the only stop-Trump scenario involves a brokered convention, and thus the strategy is to vote for Anyone But Donald: Rubio in Florida, Kasich in Ohio, and so on. In other words, Trump now needs the others to drop out... and, if his luck continues, either Kasich or Rubio (or both) will lose his home state and do just that. And then Trump will be all but impossible to stop.
That’s the tactical aspect of Trump’s success so far. But what about the underlying causes of his success? On so many counts, the man is easy to mock, fear or dismiss. But explaining him, well, that’s the work of many PhD theses to come. I don’t mean explaining his personality. I mean explaining his possibility. Why Trump, why now?
As Peggy Steinfels mentioned last week, Thomas B. Edsall offered grist for this mill in a typically well-researched piece about the Trump phenomenon. And a few days ago he updated it with this essay, in which he argues that, far from being an aberration, Trump “is the culmination of a shift in the composition of the Republican electorate that has been underway for some time.”
In my view, the perfect storm of political, social and cultural conditions that has created Trump includes the following, in no particular order: the rise of the trash-talk culture; the Donald Double-Whammy of our American worship of billionaires and of celebrities; the viral nature of controversial remarks in the Buzz-Fed, tweet-fueled Instant Media era; widespread revulsion at politics as usual and at a discourse of political bromides, and the corresponding lionization of The Outsider and the Rude Truth-Teller; burgeoning wealth inequality and a surging populism, expressed on the Republican side by a Tea Party uprising that fit awkwardly within the traditional GOP and required a different vessel; the undoing of the tricky system of patches, balances and buy-offs that held together the Republican Party since the 60s; the influence, for more than two decades now, of right-wing talk radio, inflaming anti-establishment feelings and filling political discourse with anger and invective; the paradigm-changing Great Recession, sparking rage at the bail-out of elites and vastly amplifying the sense both of grievance and of insecurity especially among the lower-middle-class; globalization, China, and the marginalization and downgrading of the US working class, with associated anxieties directed at immigrant workers; racism and semi-below-the-surface race hatred of Obama, coupled with white racial anxiety at the looming prospect of a majority-minority country (fueling what Brent Staples in the Times calls the resurgence of Reconstruction-era politics); and anxiety and anger at the prospect of American defeat and diminishment abroad, following expensive failed wars and the rise of a murderous jihadi terrorist force (including ongoing belated reaction to 9/11) that beheads Westerners.
All this, and more, gives us what we got: a loudmouth, narcissistic, xenophobic celebrity-businessman-demagogue, spouting misogynist and racial innuendo while promising strongman solutions to America’s problems. And Tweeting nonstop. And boasting about his sexual prowess. Truly a Perfect Donald for the perfect storm.
We shouldn’t doubt that he’s for real. Times columnist Charles Blow makes this point in alarmist terms, as if preparing an “I told you so” for some future moment of reckoning and despair. The Times did a curious feature, surveying its own reporters and asking them to recall “The Moment We Knew Trump Was Here to Stay” -- as if his candidacy were an indelible national calamity no one will ever forget (hmm....). I still believe that The Donald is not going to be president. But it's getting a little too close for comfort. He’s very likely going to be the Republican nominee. Toss in some unexpected Hillary mess, or – as Thomas L. Friedman pointed out the other day – an ill-timed terrorist attack, and the Perfect Donald may waltz into the White House.
My own moments of recognition have tended to happen while listening to callers on radio. There was the guy from Kentucky, some months ago, who listened to NPR host Tom Ashbrook detail the many errant, belligerent and just plain silly things Trump had said that week, and who answered, “Tom, we know he’s a blowhard and can be obnoxious, but that doesn’t really matter to us. He’s the only one standing up for us.” Then there was the middleaged woman who called in to a local talk show here in Connecticut last week. She first praised Trump for promising to build a wall (“that’s important for our security,” she said); and then she went on to explain away some of Trump’s gaffes. “That whole thing with McCain,” she said, “about him being a POW. Really, I understand that, because, when you look at it, what has McCain ever really done for veterans anyway?” She then went on to recount, with anguish and anger, how her late husband “was a veteran who had a lot of problems relating to his service, and the VA hospitals just didn’t do anything, and he couldn’t get an appointment and couldn’t get an appointment, and then he had a coronary and died, right here in the kitchen in front of me.” This was a remarkable utterance, and to me portentous. Not only was she dismissing Trump’s insult to vets, she in fact was converting it into a fighting point made on veterans’ behalf and on her own. Trump was, is, serving as a vessel into which she could pour her considerable grievance and despair.
That’s the kind of small thing that’s really big. As Friedman observed in his column:
Most voters do not listen through their ears. They listen through their stomachs. If a leader can connect with them on a gut level, their response is: “Don’t bother me with the details. I trust your instincts.” If a leader can’t connect on a gut level, he or she can’t show them enough particulars. They’ll just keep asking, “Can you show me the details one more time?”
Trump’s Republican rivals keep thinking that if they just point out a few more details about him, voters will drop The Donald and turn to one of them instead. But you can’t talk voters out of something that they haven’t been talked into. Many have come to Trump out of a gut feeling that this is a guy who knows their pain, even if he really doesn’t.
Some liberals and progressives continue to indulge in various forms of gloating, for instance Paul Krugman, who last week argued that “we should actually welcome Mr. Trump’s ascent,” since (in Krugman’s view) Trump’s con job simply highlights the various con job that the Republican party has been pulling off for a long time. Well, OK. But I wouldn’t feel so comfortable with the situation.
This is certainly by far the most fascinating election in my lifetime. Of course, people would have said the same in Germany in November of 1932. Fascination is not everything, after all. History has shown how the perfect storm can become the perfect storm trooper.