Are the obituaries the mainstream media are publishing for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy premature? That’s the line Trump apologists are bound to take today as the fallout over his attempt to question whether Senator John McCain is a war hero continues. The kerfuffle over Trump’s branding of most illegal immigrants from Mexico as rapists and drug dealers only endeared him further to a sizeable portion of potential Republican primary voters. They shared his anger about a porous border and instinctively distrusted the herd mentality of media and business figures that rushed to label him a political untouchable. But the real estate mogul turned reality star and his backers should not labor under the delusion that he will get a similar pass for his egregious comment about McCain even if he is getting some support from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, whose antipathy for the conventional wisdom of the day appears to be overwhelming his normally sound political instincts and judgement. If his bid is, as our Pete Wehner wrote on Sunday, “toast,” then the moral of the story isn’t so much about the sheer nastiness and lack of character that Trump demonstrated when he made that remark and then doubled down on it, as it is the way the democratic process has of sorting out the political wheat from the chaff. While many observers on both the left and the right, often speak as if the voters are fools that are easily manipulated by media puppet-masters, Donald Trump’s inevitable collapse will illustrate the ability of the American public to sort out the presidential race.
Let’s concede that the popularity of Trump is based on more than the name recognition that comes with both wealth and a popular television show. His good poll numbers are the product of his willingness to say outrageous things and to position himself as outside the regular political process. While his isn’t the only candidacy rooted in the idea that the voters are hungering for a non-politician, Trump’s notoriety, instinctive populism, and impulsive willingness to say whatever is on his mind makes him a magnet for the disaffected and disillusioned regardless of the merit or the consistency of any of his positions. Saying aloud whatever such voters are thinking at any given moment is neither a sign of wisdom or statesmanship but it would be obtuse to deny Trump’s raw political talent.
But no one should think Trump’s likely decline in the coming weeks will be an accident of fate. It was inevitable that Trump would eventually say something that even most conservatives would abhor. But it was also inevitable that once his comments and his record started getting the sort of scrutiny that goes with a presidential race, even some of that rationalized his illegal immigration remarks would abandon him.
That isn’t because the establishment is working its way with the press or that he is being taken out of context or unfairly criticized. Rather, it is merely the normal function of American democracy in which thoughtless extremism and gutter character assassination is always going to be seen as not keeping with the sort of behavior we expect in presidents.
Many conservatives rightly lament the way the same liberal media failed in 2008 to hound Barack Obama over some outrageous statements he made and his radical associations the way they would a conservative with similar liabilities. But the reason Obama won had less to do with media bias than his ability to act like a president in the midst of a tough race against a Clinton machine that was willing to fight dirty. His presidential temperament was not a substitute for an ability to govern but, along with the good feelings generated by the historic nature of his candidacy, it distracted most voters from his extreme agenda that was only revealed in office. Yet both our political process and the basically moderate nature of both most voters inevitably gives a boost to those candidates who understand that the exercise of great power requires more than sound bytes. They must act as if they understand the gravity of the responsibilities to which they aspire whether they actually do so or not.
As Obama’s victories demonstrated, that doesn’t ensure that we won’t elect bad presidents. But the genius of American democracy is such that candidates that are obviously unqualified to even pretend to the presidency are usually discarded long before even the nomination races heat up. If you don’t believe me about that, then ask President Michele Bachmann who seemed to be riding a wave of populist enthusiasm exactly four years ago before crashing and burning as voters — and journalists — learned more about her and heard more of her foolish statements that marked her as someone who had no business being considered for the post of leader of the free world.
Conservatives often lament with good reason the bias of a mainstream media that seeks to take out their candidates with hit pieces and prejudiced coverage. But no matter how much the process of scrutinizing candidates may be distorted by the prejudices of many in the press, not even their skewed reporting can deceive American voters for long about the essential nature of those in the race.
While he retains the capacity to harm the Republican Party’s more viable presidential candidates by focusing all attention on his gaffes and may yet do even more damage as a potential third party candidate, Trump could not hide in plain sight for long. Say what you will about the influence of money or a biased press. Denounce a nomination process that has turned into a four-year marathon if you like. But what we are witnessing is something that is natural to American politics and highly commendable. Long before the parties choose their nominees, candidates like Trump will be found out and discarded by the overwhelming majority of voters. Even if the polls are still looking positive for Trump before they take into account the McCain comments, those inclined to doubt the future of American democracy should have more faith in the American people.