Cameron Carter: Donald's wild, wild ride
Friday, May 13, 2016 9:47 AM
MONTICELLO, Ind. – I know, I know; you want to read another piece on Donald Trump about as much as I want to write one, but grant this one accommodation to our shared political reality. We’re going to be hearing and seeing and reading A LOT about “The Donald” over the next six months as he heads first to the GOP convention in Cleveland this summer and then to televised debates this fall with Hillary Clinton. Buckle up, buttercup, it’s going to be a wild, wild ride.
Grant this as well; all of the political soothsayers, all of the yammering heads on TV, all of the campaign pros, even the new class of predictive political data geek-demigod-gurus (e.g., Nate Silver), got Trump’s rise wrong, dead wrong. Their conventional wisdom told us that Trump would never be the Republican nominee, so we need not worry about this boorish ignoramus becoming the next leader of the free world.
Wrong. Dead wrong. Worry is of no use at this time.
How’d they get it so wrong? And, why is Donald Trump, a man unfit to serve as president by temperament and training, likely – yes, likely – to become our next commander in chief? Theories abound, but I think it comes down to isolation, the power of modern celebrity, and the ineffectiveness of the GOP as both a governing party and loyal opposition to President Obama. In Indiana’s primary last week, we saw all these forces culminate in Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee.
A fish does not know it is in water, and it is this phenomenon primarily that led to the political class being blindsided by the Donald (and perhaps to an even greater extent, Bernie Sanders, whose time in the sun is, alas, coming to an end). This class is isolated by geography, income, and everyday activities from the concerns of the hoi polloi. Wherever located, they are isolated at the far end of the bell curve from the concerns of average Americans, whose income has not risen in real terms in more than a decade. They live and breathe politics whereas the average American is mostly far removed from politics and simply wants space to live and breathe.
Polling data have shown the country’s “right track/wrong track” numbers severely upside down for many years and President Obama has proven to be a polarizing figure during his tenure. Our catatonic Congress is less popular than genital warts. The conditions were ripe for a political “revolution”; all it needed was a leader.
By definition, that leader was not going to come from this class with which the American people are so frustrated. However, an “outsider” would fit the bill nicely and many stepped forward in 2015 to claim the mantle.
Presidential aspirants begin with a small base of support, an itch to run and encouragement from those around them (remember the fish). However, their aspirations in a “yuuuge” diverse country of 320 million people are mostly delusional, even for well-regarded, long-serving public officials. They run to serve, they run to promote an issue (or a book), they run to stroke their egos, but mostly they just run and, like many a marathoner, they hit a wall.
The national infrastructure needed to mount a successful presidential campaign is daunting. The ability to pierce the public consciousness in a nation so vast and diverse – whose modern, disintegrating media is even more vast and diverse – is simply beyond the capabilities of most campaigns. Unless they are already a celebrity, a brand, like Donald Trump.
Trump’s national following as a reality TV star developed over decades as a self-promoting real estate developer, casino magnate and book author. Like it or not, Trump is an eponymous brand in the American psyche, has been for years, and he’s far from bland. Blandness is Kryptonite to a national candidate in today’s media mix and the more experienced, sober and thoughtful candidate will always struggle against the bomb-thrower and the demagogue. It has ever been so throughout history. Trump’s trump card was … Trump!
Finally, Trump sensed the void in a political party that has been riven by factionalism and fanaticism to its detriment and potential demise. During my entire political career which began in the Reagan era, the GOP has been an unstable alliance between fiscal hawks and social conservatives. One wing is laissez faire whose economic doctrine extends to noninterference in the social affairs of others (both figuratively and literally) while the other wing would like to regulate personal morals and social conduct, even to the extremes of dictating the precise time and place one may poop or carry (or not) a child to term, regardless of circumstance. Not much common ground there to discuss at the Lincoln Day dinner table.
This friction between those attracted to the Republican Party for entirely different reasons has led to internal clashes that are increasing in frequency, seriousness and result (see Lugar, Richard G.). While this plays out nationally, we in Indiana have seen it up close and personal during the Pence years as debates over gay rights, abortion and other “social” issues (e.g., needle exchanges) have played an out-sized role in Hoosier politics. At the same time, the doctrine of laissez faire economics seems to have played out and what is simple in theory gets complex when applied in the real world; the same can be said for social issues. The GOP needs new ideas and new leaders. Into the breach steps Donald Trump, who will now be the standard-bearer for a party that is struggling with its 21st century identity and very survival; call it end-state Republicanism.
Trump is a crass celebrity who exploited the GOP’s internal divisions and will exploit the wider public’s abiding discontent with politicians unable to provide answers to economic distress and uncertainty. His policies are all over the map, but we should have learned by now not to underestimate his appeal or ability.
Donald Trump is in a statistical tie with the deeply flawed Hillary Clinton in new polling in the swing states of Pennsylvania and Florida. He’s leading her in the swing state of Ohio. We have seen his type before, only less crass, but equally brash in his own, mellifluous way. That person, too, was an unlikely victor over Hillary Clinton and calls 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue his home.
Carter is a recuperating lobbyist and long-time political strategist who has worked on several state and national political campaigns. He is HPI’s national correspondent. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.