Yesterday, our John Podhoretz spoke for many Americans when he found it impossible to view the rise of Donald Trump in the polls with anything but despair. John’s description of Trump’s approach to issues was entirely correct. In a business where outsize egos are a dime a dozen, Trump’s megalomania is a defining characteristic and his bluster has served to cover up the fact that he has a deplorable record on conservative issues and has no coherent approach to governance or ideology. The size of the support he has engendered is troubling because he could well alter the outcome of the 2016 election by either capturing the Republican Party nomination outright or it could encourage him to try a third party run that will guarantee victory for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. But before we write off the GOP’s chances and begin the process of explicating the new political age of Trump, a moment of calm is called for. Though everything we are seeing in the last few weeks lends credence to the notion that the Trump phenomenon is real and permanent, it is important to remember that is it just as likely that the real estate mogul turned reality star turned presidential candidate will fizzle long before the votes start getting counted next winter. What follows are four reasons Trump will fade.
Yes, I know. To even suggest that Trump is not the embodiment of a new political revolution will bring down on me both scorn and vitriol from the celebrity candidate’s many fans that will compete with each other to channel their hero’s trademark viciousness in excoriating critics.
The attacks from Trump loyalists on that score won’t be entirely unreasonable. Trump’s support may not last but until it does disappear his fans are entitled to see it as a substantial endorsement of his personality and combative nature if not every aspect of his candidacy. Before we try to bury Trump, it’s important to understand that his boomlet is a genuine reflection of frustration on the part of a portion of the Republican base.
The key element that Trump exploited was anger about illegal immigration. Some of that can be dismissed as rooted in prejudicial attitudes toward Hispanics. Trump’s offensive comments about Mexican illegal immigrants being rapists and drug dealers may have rightly earned him some harsh condemnations but there is a portion of the electorate that is actually turned on by a willingness to flout both convention and courtesy. He is, after all, a reality TV star and the same qualities that work for him in that format help him in politics.
But not all of this is about prejudice. Much of it has to do with resentment of the political establishment of both parties. The fact that he is not really a conservative and hasn’t much idea about how government works doesn’t bother those who are so angry that they applaud a simple-minded blowhard approach that can’t distinguish between the political process and the problems it is failing to address. As our Pete Wehner noted last week, this is a case of populism masquerading as conservatism but that won’t stop Trump from garnering a sizeable share of a GOP base that may have, at least for the moment, decided that a full-blown outsider like Trump is to be preferred to other genuine conservative insurgents who are working within the political system including someone like Ted Cruz who seems at times to be attempting to blow it up from within.
But while it may seem like the Trump tide will never recede, let’s remember a few key facts about Donaldmania.
First, polls taken in the July of the year before a presidential election are not a reliable barometer of what the situation will be in the fall let alone the following winter and spring. Trump’s poll numbers are a product of enormous media coverage, celebrity and a contrarian streak in the body politic that will always applaud a genuine outlier. It may be permanent, but it could also vanish as quickly as it arose.
Second, the first debates may, as John pointed out, be all about Trump. But there is no reason to assume that his bluster will carry the day in that kind of a forum where he cannot hush critics or control the questions. Even if he blithely assumes that the force of his personality and celebrity will crush his more conventional opponents, that blind confidence could wind up making him look like a fool when arrayed against policy wonks and champion debaters who, unlike Trump, actually know what they are talking about when it comes to policy questions.
Third, the assumption on the part of some that a public that has been watching Trump on TV for years already knows all it cares to learn about the man is equally unfounded. I doubt that most of those on the right applauding his outrageous act are aware of Trump’s long history of backing for liberal causes and even his financial support for Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns and their family charity that operates as a political slush fund for the former first couple. Will that matter? Trump thinks not, but he shouldn’t be so sure. Trump has been subjected to intense scrutiny as a celebrity, but he has yet to learn that the gossip page items that actually help a TV star will hurt a presidential wannabe.
Fourth, as I noted last week, the basic culture of American democracy is something that is designed to trip up demagogues. This wouldn’t be the first case of populism run amuck in American history and there are some obvious examples of outlier figures having a major impact on the outcome of elections. A charismatic figure like William Jennings Bryan may not have offered any more of a coherent approach to governance than Trump in the 1890s, but the force of his rhetoric captured the Democratic Party for a generation. And, as John noted, Trump may turn out to be the second coming of Ross Perot with equally disastrous implications for Republicans as that Third Party candidate that effectively handed the country over to the Clintons. Americans many not always see through charlatans running for office, but underestimating their ability to smell a fraud is a sucker’s bet.
Make a note to call me a false prophet if I’m wrong, but the bottom line is that I still say Trump won’t be the GOP nominee. More than that, I believe we’ll look back at the panic he caused in the GOP this summer as another example of how the political class and pundits can be so wrapped up in the moment that they fail to see the big picture. It’s time to take a deep breath and wait for the inevitable moment when the air starts to come out of his balloon.