What a difference a year makes. Last June when Donald Trump descended from that escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, nearly everyone in the political world laughed and laughed. How could this pompadoured clown could possibly think he could get the Republican nomination for president of the United States? What a joke. Some of us recognized Trump's inherent appeal to the right wing and admonished political observers to pay attention. But for the most part the pundits dismissed his candidacy as some sort of comedic performance art.
The smart numbers crunchers like Five Thirty Eight's Nate Silver and the New York Times' Nate Cohn dismissed Trump as a flash in the pan, with Silver writing that "our emphatic prediction is simply that Trump will not win the nomination" and Cohn predicting that Trump's subsequent comments about John McCain not being the kind of war hero Trump preferred was "the moment Trump's campaign went from boom to bust." Perhaps most famously, The Huffington Post covered Trump in its entertainment section rather than its political section as a way of making statement both about the media's obsession with Trump and about Trump himself. In the end, Ttey unceremoniously moved their Trump coverage back to its rightful place some time ago and both Silver and Cohn issued their mea culpas yesterday. And they were hardly alone.
Plenty of others made the same prediction. It was conventional wisdom at the time and for some good reasons, perhaps the most important being that the 2012 GOP primary race had featured an epic assortment of weirdos and misfits, some of whom, including Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, were number one in the polls for a time. Right wing religious extremist Rick Santorum was the runner up in that race, after all. Conventional wisdom held that presidential primaries tend to have a bit of a freakshow quality in the beginning that usually peters out as people begin to pay more attention.
In fact, Ben Carson proved the point. For a time he was the frontrunner, collecting tons of money from small donors and dominating the coverage. But when he stumbled badly answering questions about his past and generally sounded ignorant about American foreign policy, he quickly sank in the polls. This had the effect of reinforcing the beltway conventional wisdom that this was the normal process and soon it would happen to Trump as well.
However, one needs only to go slightly further back to 2008 to recall the spectacle of Sarah Palin being chosen as John McCain's running mate to recognize that the modern Republican Party has not been afraid to put one of their sideshow acts on the main stage. That should have tipped off the intelligentsia that Trump's act could catch on with GOP voters. The base loved Palin and her crypto-white nationalist paeans to Joe the Plumber. And they certainly didn't mind that she was completely unprepared for the job. In fact it was a selling point. The similarities between her subsequent turn as a reality star and The Donald's long stint on "The Apprentice" escaped the notice of most observers in the apparent belief that such an embarrassing career was a disqualifier when their fans saw it as a major plus.
And if people had been paying slightly closer attention they would have seen that despite all the breathless reporting about the GOP's "deep bench" of astonishing political talent, the Republican race was already a clown car with the top tier candidates like Christie and Walker making fools of themselves overseas, Rubio making no impression whatsoever and Jeb Bush appearing to be sleepwalking. For all of their credentials and experience they were already bumbling their way through the primary by the time Trump threw his comb-over into the ring. But the PR push had been fierce going into 2016, with Republicans of all stripes convinced that, between their young and vigorous candidates and their vastly experienced political hands, their field was unbeatable.
The story of the GOP leadership's long list of mistakes in this primary will surely be the subject of several campaign books. But the main error is the same as the media's: They assumed that Trump would implode the same way the other "outsider" candidate, Ben Carson, imploded. Trump defied all such expectations every step of the way, making shocking comments nearly every day, none which managed to take him down. Instead, they kept him in first place. Nobody could believe that they were actually helping him by proving to his followers that he was confident enough and tough enough to say what they are all thinking right out loud. The more politically incorrect he is, the more they love him.
But the main reason so many people failed to see Trump as a serious candidate is not just because he is a special candidate or because the electorate is still feeling the effects of a massive economic crisis and many years of stagnant wages. (The polls show that Trump does not actually have any special appeal to the working class over any other group in the GOP. In fact, his voters are economically better off than most Americans.) The problem is that many of the commentariat and the political establishment had fooled themselves into believing that the conservative movement has been inspired by ideological commitment to a set of constitutional principles, patriotic obligation and devotion to traditional values.
But it turns out that elaborate intellectual construct was never the primary motivation for many members of the GOP. What attracted them were the dogwhistles, the under-the-radar signals to Americans who feel betrayed by the social changes that have rocked our culture for the past 40 years. And they are tired of listening to all that philosophical mumbo-jumbo as Republican politicians fail to deliver on their implicit promises to set things right. Trump is keeping it real.
The Republican establishment is starting to come to terms with this and it's going to be a painful process. Ben Ginsburg, the powerful Republican lawyer and operative rather poignantly explained it yestrday on MSNBC:
"There were certain precepts of the Republican Party that you had to be strong on national security, on certain economic policies, and on social issues. Donald Trump has taken a position that's contrary to Republican doctrine and orthodoxy on each one of those three legs of the Republican stool. So all of a sudden Republicans have to be thinking, is there a new and better way to form a cohesive governing strategy than what we've been doing for he past couple of decades including losing two presidential elections?"
Last night on "All In," Chris Hayes speculated about what the Republican base wants it to be:
"We're going to give it a go as the party of essentially white identity resentment politics. That is going to be the new iteration of the Republican Party of the next six months looks like and let's see if it works."
This dark side of American politics has always been with us and it's often wielded substantial power. But in recent years it was forced to stay on the down low. Now we're about to find out if it's coming fully out in the open again, declaring its intentions and daring the world to stop it. And considering the terrible track record of the last 10 months of punditry, it would be very foolish to predict how it's going to come out. We'll know soon enough.