The predictions about Trump have been so wrong because none of the normal rules apply to him.
Columnists assured us that Donald Trump’s campaign would implode after he cheaply besmirched war hero John McCain. They assured us again after he crudely dismissed Fox News’s star anchor and heartthrob, Megyn Kelly. And again after his schoolboy rumor-mongering about Senator Ted Cruz’s wife. And on and on.
Yet such nonstop insults and gaffes have had little effect on the Trump candidacy. Actually, they have had no effect at all. Zero. Zilch.
Political operatives insisted that Trump would fade, given that he had no real organization on the ground. My God, they said, he has no handlers, and not a position paper in sight. Where is his internal polling? Where are the senior Wise Men to advise him on the demographics of state primaries? Yet Trump garnered more free publicity, interviews, and attention from the liberal media than did any well-handled candidate, Democrat or Republican.
The commentators on the weekend talk shows employed adverbs like “finally” and “at last” to characterize each of the latest outrages likely to end Trump’s campaign. Trump broke his promise about releasing his income-tax returns (was he hiding a whittled-down 13 percent tax rate in Bernie Sanders fashion?). He fibs nonstop about opposing the Iraq war from the beginning. And he continuously exaggerates his net worth, as if the public were a lender that he was conning.
Each of those fudgings earned pronouncements from the experts about a “turning point” in his fate. How many times has someone on a Sunday-morning show pronounced, in somber tones, “Trump has gone too far this time” — without defining “too far”?
These periodic Trump obituaries were often instead followed by upticks in Trump’s popularity. A Trump orgasm is to have someone in a suit and makeup, or with a title before his name, pontificate that Trump should be and is through — a Trump pleasure surpassed only by a shouting young anti-Trump disrupter shown on the news with a placard, “Make America Mexico Again.”
Seasoned pollsters intoned that if only the rest of the Republican field would winnow itself out, thus allowing a direct head-to-head vote between Trump and one solid conservative, Trump would certainly lose. Yet the more candidates dropped out of the Republican primaries, the stronger Trump seemed to become.
Pollsters also insisted that Trump alone of the major Republican candidates — unlike Ted Cruz, John Kasich, or Marco Rubio — could not beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. But the more frequently Trump was written off as unviable, the more his polls climbed to near Clinton’s. Was he a Goldwater primary tsunami that would wash out in the general election, or a rare Reagan tidal wave that would bury his skeptics, both now and in November?
Clearly, elite journalists, political advisers, media anchors, and pollsters, for all their analyses, have no idea where, why, and how Trump garners support. He follows no campaign rules. He has no consistent political ideology. He ignores decorum. Scandals do not tar him. The media treat him like a cobra rising from a basket — terrified that if at any moment they stop their music, the smiling serpent might strike and bite them in the nose.
Tomorrow Trump could declare there to be 57 states, or address vets as Corpse-men or tell his legions to bring a gun to a knife fight — and none of his supporters would find him clueless, half-educated, or incendiary. If Trump brought one of his wheeler-dealer Manhattan real-estate cronies to a rally and the man’s court-ordered ankle bracelet went off, no one would bat an eye.
In other words, Trump is a postmodern creation, for whom traditional and time-tested rules do not apply. He is neither brilliant nor unhinged, neither ecumenical nor just a polarizer, not a wrecker and not a savior of the Republican party, but something else altogether. He does not defy conventional wisdom. There simply is no convention and no wisdom applicable to Donald J. Trump. For years postmodernists have lectured us that there is no truth, no absolutes, no timeless protocols worthy of reverence; Trump is their Nemesis, who reifies their theories that truth is simply a narrative whose veracity is established by the degree of power and persuasion behind it.
A reality-TV star, Trump appeals to those who despise reality-TV celebs like the Kardashians. A billionaire, he is the hero of those who hate billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett. A vain narcissist, he earns the loyalty of those who are repelled by the vain narcissism of Barack Obama. A man who dyes and does his hair, tans his skin, and stretches his face, he appeals to those who have neither the money nor the desire to do the same.
A self-described Republican, he attacks Republicans more than Democrats. An elite insider, he blasts elite insiders. He is both to the right and to the left of Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio. Trump rails against dirty campaign fundraising — and he assures us that no one knows such corruption better than he himself, since as a donor he used to spread cash around precisely to influence. Why else should anyone give?
If the rules of politics do not apply to Trump, how then can Trump break them? For Donald Trump, there is only one third rail: conventionality. If he, as advised, were to stop calling his rivals liars and crooks; if he, as urged, were to read sober and judicious speeches off teleprompters; if he, as counseled, were to talk in politically correct platitudes, Trump would turn doctrinaire and conformist — and be undone by reviving the very orthodox rules he once strangled, but that otherwise strangle outsider-insiders like himself. If Trump were to listen to a politico and lose 30 pounds, shorten his tie, cut off his comb-over, and wear earth-tone clothes, he would be finished.
His supporters want a reckoning with a system that has not so much failed as infuriated them. What drives their loyalty to Trump — if not the person, at least the idea of Trump — is a sort of nihilism. As a close friend put it to me this week, “I don’t care whether Trump wins or not, I just want him to f— things up as long as he can.”
In his supporters’ eyes, had Trump run in 2008 he might have lost, but he would at least have aired one Obama hit-ad a minute, with Rev. Wright screaming obscenities as a trailer crossed the screen beneath, collating the various quotations of praise from Obama for his personal pastor. If Trump had run in 2012, they believe, he would have cut off Candy Crowley — the moderator who hijacked the second presidential debate to save Barack Obama — in a cruder way than he screamed at Rosie O’Donnell.
Trump is the antithesis of his smears of his rivals. He is many things, but at least not “low energy.” He may be fat and pink and orange, but he is not “little.” He lies and fabricates, but he is not a sober and judicious constitutionalist: So “Lyin’ Donald Trump” wouldn’t work as a sound bite. Nor would “crooked Donald” — given that he would admit he trims a lot in business, whereas Hillary would deny to her last breath that the Clintons made $100 million by leveraging their name and offices in quid-pro-quo shakedowns.
To get a clearer idea of the feelings of Trump supporters, read the comments section following any mainstream news story that deals with race, class, and gender in politically correct fashion. A stream-of-consciousness litany of his supporters’ peeves, for good or ill, would run like this: The wrong people are in the news. Instead of generals, and small-business owners, and muscular workers, we instead see smarmy smart-asses, the pajama boys and mattress girls of the world of TV, who roll their eyes, wink about a joke only the anointed get, and smirk that what they say could have three different meanings — the Jon Stewarts, David Lettermans, and Stephen Colberts of Smug, Inc.
On race, Trump supporters are tired of hearing that black lives matter, while no one mentions that all lives matter. They are sick of seeing protestors wave the flag of the country they do not wish illegal aliens to be sent back to and trash the country they under no circumstances want them to leave. They don’t like getting a letter from an IRS that employs Lois Lerner — a letter that would be ignored with impunity by those who are here illegally, or who run the Clinton Foundation. They are tired of wealthy minorities claiming they are perpetual victims of ill-treatment at the hands of people who are less well off than they. They don’t like hearing from elites that huge trade deficits have little to do with loss of jobs or that cheating by our trade partners is just a passing glitch in free trade. They cannot stand lectures from those who make more money in an hour than they do in a year about their own bad habits or slothfulness. They don’t know what the on-screen savants mean by a leg-tingle or a perfectly pressed pant leg or a first-class temperament or a president as god — and they don’t care to find out. They do not hate political correctness so much as one-sided political correctness, which gives a pass to some to say things that would get others fired or ruined. They don’t want to be lectured that their own plight is part of a larger, healthy creative destruction or a leaner, meaner competitiveness or an overdue restructuring — by those who are never destroyed, rendered noncompetitive, or restructured. And they don’t like to be talked down to by the experts who ran up $10 trillion in debt, ruined the health-care system, dismantled the military, and screwed up the Secret Service, the IRS, NASA, and the VA. Trump is their megaphone, not their solution. The Trump supporters have seen plenty of politicians with important agendas, but few with the zeal to push them through; at this late date, they would apparently prefer zeal without agendas to agendas without zeal.
Trump has no loyalty to the Republican establishment or to the conservative movement. The apparent greatest attraction for his supporters is that he drives crazy those who worship Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And if the Republican establishment implodes with the Obamism it did not stop, well, so goes collateral damage — and in the process, woe to us all.
Trump is for a brief season our long-haired Samson, and the two pillars of the temple he is yanking down are the Republicans to his right and the Democrats to his left — and it will all land on top of us, the Philistines beneath.
“And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life.” Judges 16.30.