It was George Orwell who said it takes a great struggle to see what is sitting directly in front of your nose. In this three-ring circus of a presidential election, that thing may well be Donald Trump.
I realize the 2016 campaign is only two primaries deep, with some four dozen still to go. I know that a gazillion utterly unpredictable things could—and probably will—occur between now and the Republican convention in July (say, the death of a Supreme Court justice) and I understand that the pull of historical precedent has the gravitational force of a black hole.
And yet—as I survey the wreckage of the last eight months and scan the primary calendar for the next four—my conclusion is almost inescapable: Donald Trump will, in fact, be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
We all denied this prospect for as long as we possibly could. Malignant moral tumor that he is, Trump struck us as an entity too horrible to contemplate, too ridiculous to accept. Whatever the opinion polls said, we just couldn’t bear the thought that a wretched specimen like him could become the standard-bearer for a major American political party, because what would that say about America?
But now—with a 20-point victory in the New Hampshire primary and a group of opponents who keep canceling each other out—the notion of Trump as the nominee has become not just likely, but very nearly inevitable.
The numbers (to coin a phrase) do not lie. Except for one week in October, Trump has placed first in every national opinion poll taken in the last seven months—often by 15 or 20-point margins—and nothing he has said or done has had the slightest negative impact on that popularity. Further, since 1976, no Republican has secured his party’s nomination without winning either New Hampshire or South Carolina, and Trump is likely to snag both. So long as most of his co-candidates stick around (a fairly safe assumption), they will continue to split the non-Trump vote in one primary after another, rendering themselves collectively irrelevant and an utter non-threat.
We can’t deny it any longer: On the basis of arithmetic and the basic laws of momentum, Donald Trump is unstoppable, and that’s all there is to it.
I can’t say I saw this coming. Back in August I wrote a dispatch that predicted—in no uncertain terms—that the Trump phenomenon would not—could not—last all the way through the primaries. “The party will eventually snap out of it, if only out of self-preservation,” I wrote at the time, cavalierly adding, “In our lifetimes, neither the Democrats nor Republicans have nominated a candidate so transparently unelectable who, all the while, held no particular political views and was openly detested by virtually every other official in his own party.”
It would appear I was mistaken. However, let us be quite clear what I—and everyone else—was mistaken about.
It’s not that we doubted Trump’s ability to rile up a crowd. Nor did we fail to grasp the appeal of someone who shoots directly from the hip. Nor—critically—did we misjudge the inner workings of the man himself.
Rather, it’s that we became so consumed—and appalled—by Trump’s faults that we just couldn’t fathom that the number of people who either admired or were willing to overlook them was large enough to carry the day. We figured Trump couldn’t win because we assumed Republican voters weren’t as hateful and ignorant as he is.
Oops. Our bad.
Watching TV analysts try to explain how this campaign has reached this weird juncture, it’s striking how squeamish those pundits are about laying the blame on American voters. Ask them how an infantile, sexist demagogue has utterly captivated 30-something percent of the GOP electorate, and the answer is always some variation of, “Well, he has successfully tapped into a sense of anger among the public.”
In other words: Never mind that Trump has advocated religious discrimination as part of our immigration policy. Or that he has repeatedly compared women to farm animals. Or that just last week he vowed to commit war crimes against suspected terrorists. (Yes, waterboarding is still torture.)
No, no, no. The only worthwhile insight is that Trump identifies with the anxiety of millions of Americans who feel that, in Trump’s words, “the country is going to hell.”
Sorry kids, but that explanation just don’t cut the mustard. The truth—the whole truth—is that the Republican Party is bursting at the seams with irrational, vindictive, poorly-educated white men vaguely dissatisfied with their lives and convinced it’s the fault of everyone except their own selves—in particular, Mexicans, Muslims and “the blacks.” (And, I suppose, Congress.)
As it turns out, this cohort of GOP loyalists is indeed large enough to carry a cretin like Trump all the way to the finish line, and the reason his popularity has remained so high is that those folks are determined not to see what is directly in front of their faces—namely, that Trump is completely full of crap and is appealing to their basest possible instincts.
Over and over again, Trump’s appeal—such as it is—has been conflated with that of Bernie Sanders. I really can’t overstress how simpleminded and wrong this theory is. Although both men are openly contemptuous of the status quo and make a point of calling it as they see it, the similarities most definitely end there.
Consider: When a bunch of Sanders supporters—the infamous “Bernie bros”—were revealed to be abusive, misogynistic pigs, Sanders reacted in an interview by saying, “It’s disgusting. We don’t want that crap. Anybody who is supporting me and is doing sexist things, I don’t want them. That’s not what this campaign is about.”
Can you imagine that kind of maturity from Trump when faced with similar criticisms? Of course you can’t, because as he has proved time and again, he manifestly does not believe in seizing the moral high ground or in being even slightly politically correct. When a Trump supporter commits some atrocity or other—be it physical or rhetorical—Trump invariably comes to the defense of the assailant rather than the victim. Indeed, if he values anything at all, it’s loyalty, and he is as faithful to the mobs at his rallies as they are to him. When he recently quipped that his fans wouldn’t desert him even if he committed murder in broad daylight, it struck many of us as the truest statement he’s ever made.
Long story short (too late?), our collective blind spot for Trump’s amazing success was rooted in the premise that most Republican voters are decent, principled people with an innate disgust for shameless, unhinged narcissism fused with a reckless disregard for the rights of women and other institutionally vulnerable groups.
If that premise were true, Trump would not exist. But it’s not and he does. If you don’t accept both of those facts simultaneously, you’re missing the ugly forest for the equally ugly trees.
The GOP is saddled with a rotten candidate because it has rotten voters. Simple as that. We can bitch all we want about the lackluster quality of our elected representatives, but in the end, we get the leaders we deserve.
In 2016, the Republican Party deserves Donald Trump, and that’s exactly what it’s gonna get. Will the rest of America follow suit? It sure doesn’t seem likely, but then again, neither did much else that has occurred since this godforsaken race began. What gives us the right to be certain of anything in this regard, considering where that confidence has gotten us so far?