To those who say that Trump is going to lose this election: conventional wisdom agrees with you, as do the various betting pools out there. Of course, Brexit reminds us that the anti-establishment, populist vote in this election cycle is probably larger than the polls would indicate. Still, is it likely that lightning will strike the same place twice and give us two Brexits in the same year? Again, conventional wisdom would say no, which is why you have history, most current polls, and common sense on your side when you say that the election is lost.
My sense is that we shall know on Sunday evening if Trump can come back from his present deficit in the polls. Either Trump acts like a president and manifests a greater command of the issues than he did in the first debate, or he looks like an amateur out of his league. None of this will matter to avid fans like myself who are motivated either by populist anger against elites or, as in my case, by a decidedly paleo-conservative worldview. Nevertheless, how he performs will matter to the moderate Jeb Bush Republicans out there (and especially to moderate women voters) who hate Clinton but cannot stomach pulling the lever for a man whom they sense has no more depth than a carnival barker.
On paper, this should be a Republican year; and my real sense is that most of the undecided voters are actually hoping that Trump will grow up just enough to give them a reason to vote for him. Trump is so close to the golden ring, and he has to improve so little in real terms to grab ahold of that ring, and yet he seems (at this point, anyway) to be intellectually and temperamentally incapable of making those small adjustments necessary to get past his carnival barker image.
Critics say that any other Republican who ran for president in 2016 would be in the lead by now and likely to win. Given the anti-establishment fervor this election cycle, I am not so sure a Jeb Bush would have done as well as you think. Also, I still think that Ted Cruz had a ceiling on his support that would have kept him out of the White House, notwithstanding the anti-establishment fervor he cultivated and Clinton’s lukewarm campaign. Still, caveats aside, even if we concede the critics’ point, it should be noted that the opposite is also true – namely, that Clinton is one of the few Democrats Trump could have defeated (and may still defeat when all of this is done). If the voters were foolish to nominate Trump, then at least they were fools in a year that the Democrats rallied around an especially weak candidate.
The question is why would so many Republican primary and caucus voters get behind a man who never demonstrated any particular nuance on policy, and who had the temperament of an adolescent schoolyard bully. To some extent, Trump’s success may be attributed to the higher number of open primaries earlier in the primary season. To some extent, it may be attributed as well to the unwillingness of the press to open fire on him during the primaries. Mostly, though, I think that the failure of the other anti-establishment candidates to gang up on him until near the end of the primary season accounts for Trump’s success. Early on, the only candidates really denouncing Trump were GOP establishment folks like Jeb Bush and, to a lesser extent, John Kasich. Their attacks actually helped Trump win the mantle of “most anti-establishment crusader.” The only Republican who could have defeated Trump early was Ted Cruz, but Cruz decided to court Trump early on in the expectation that Trump would implode and that his supporters then would gravitate toward him.
My larger point is that Trump’s success in the primaries had more to do with the inability of his competitors to figure out how to treat him until it was too late. The fact is that most Republican voters remained weary of Trump throughout the long and arduous primary season. Trump seldom scored above 35% of the vote in the early contests. He did not start to win outright majorities until New York, where the Cruz campaign really hit the wall. I do not think that it is really fair to castigate most Republican primary and caucus voters as stupid. Rather, it is more fair to say that the GOP establishment failed miserably in both foreseeing and containing the populist fervor that underlie much of Trump’s appeal.
And this leads to my main point here: If we want to say that Trump’s candidacy is a mistake, then the blame really should be directed at the tone deaf Washington-Wall Street GOP establishment. The warnings have been there for awhile:
1.) The 1992 Ross Perot candidacy, which largely emerged out from the ranks of disaffected Republicans who rejected Bush the Elder.
2.) The 1996 and 2000 Pat Buchanan candidacy, which showed that many rank and file Republican voters really did not bow to the altar of free trade and open borders. Free trade and open borders might be “GOP orthodoxy” on K Street and among white collar professionals benefitting disproportionately from the emerging global economy, but the blue collar folks increasingly rejected the notion that it is good to lose their jobs to Mexican laborers in return for cheaper stuff at Walmart.
3.) The Tea Party Movement, which – like the Perot campaign – largely emerged from disaffected Republicans who rejected Bush the Younger.
The GOP establishment used to buy off the blue collar types with an appeal to social conservatism. Their message – in essence – was as follows: Sure, we favor laws and policies that will make it easier to outsource your job; but, hey, we are on the record against gay marriage.
The problem for the GOP establishment was that, notwithstanding the above historical developments, they failed to realize that the blue collar folks and the Evangelicals were no longer going to be pacified by social conservatism. They did not develop a strategy to deal with someone like Trump, and so they were completely flat footed when Trump read the Zeitgeist correctly and put himself in front of a wave that had been developing long before he came onto the scene.
The lesson is that either the free trade and open borders folks need to do a better job at convincing the average Joe Sixpack that the global economy is good for him, or they need to develop serious policy prescriptions for addressing the fallout from a competitive global marketplace. Frankly, they also need to demand greater and more consistent reciprocity. Recently, Wanda, a film production and distribution behemoth controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, purchased AMC, the largest USA theater chain. The Red Chinese now own 75% of all major motion picture screens in the USA, and they have made it clear that they intend to use their clout not only to make money but to suppress films that undermine their propaganda aims. Now, will China allow a USA company to purchase anywhere close to 75% of its major motion picture screens? Will China embrace with open arms an American company known to be operated by the Republican Party or the CIA? You know the answer to both questions, and so do most Americans. Should we be surprised that they would view their own elites as selling them down the river? China’s leaders put Chinese interests first, is it too
much to ask our American establishment to do the same?