In many ways, Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency is so preposterous that it demands to be dismissed as a joke. This would be a mistake.
Trump deserves attention – though not because he’s likely to win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. Almost anything is possible in politics, but President Trump strains the outer limits of improbability. He should be taken seriously, nonetheless, for two reasons.
First, he could dictate the outcome next year even if, as is likely, the Republicans nominate somebody else. Second, his following and the interest he’s aroused are significant in their own right.
I ought to mention that I’m more hesitant in ruling out Trump’s chances of winning the nomination than I was a couple of weeks ago. Immediately after the Republicans’ first debate, I ventured to disagree with a neighbor in West Virginia – a retired coal miner, Democrat-turned-Republican, Trump supporter – who said his man did well. I said I thought Trump made an ass of himself and would pay for it in the post-debate polls. My friend laughed and said, “We'll see.”
He and many other Trump supporters regard their candidate as a Ronald Reagan for these times. Reagan, like Trump, was an object of disdain among those who consider themselves smarter than the average voter. The liberal media thought Reagan was a joke, and kept on saying so all through his two terms in the White House. That contempt helped him a lot.
It’s helping Trump, too. Truly, he invites derision – a pit bull with a comb-over – and revels in it. You think he looks funny? He’s immensely rich and you’re not, so who’s laughing?
Trump is no Reagan. Reagan was a popular and successful governor before he ran for the White House. He was charming, too – gentle, sunny and courteous. In that respect, Trump is the anti-Reagan. He’s brutish and angry and excessively proud of it. Those are the traits most likely to limit his appeal.
And to succeed he'll need to broaden his appeal a lot. It’s easy to forget that, to win the nomination, Trump needs much more support than he’s received so far. Polls put him at around 22 percent of Republican voters. He’s dominating the race only because the field is still huge. The question is, how much support will he gather as other candidates drop out? His upside seems limited. A lot of Republicans actively dislike him. As the field gets winnowed down, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio are more likely to benefit.
Yet failing to win the nomination won’t make Trump electorally irrelevant. As he told the Republican Party in response to the opening question of that televised debate, he won’t rule out a run as an independent. His chance of winning the presidency that way would be poor, but his chances of splitting the conservative vote and helping a Democrat get elected would be good.
Only a publicity-seeking celebrity-addicted narcissist with money to burn would choose to run under those conditions, you say? Maybe so. What’s your point?
Whatever Trump’s role in the election, his magnetism is telling. Granted, in channeling frustration with politics as usual, he’s doing nothing new. Trump is hardly the first to see that frustration and exploit it. He does, on the other hand, have an interesting idea about its cause.
Trump is in no true sense conservative – or, for that matter, a centrist or progressive. Nobody would call him a wonk. His populism is of a purer strand. He is a man of widely assorted convictions, many of them both false and repellent, each expressed with total commitment until the next one comes along. To hell with coherence. He is beyond ideology – unless “Action This Day” counts as a worldview.
Trump doesn’t see gridlock in Washington as the result of polarization and an increased reluctance to reach pragmatic centrist compromises, or any such smarty-pants nonsense. He rejects trade-offs as firmly as any hardline partisan would, but not because his principles rule them out. His certainties are simply a matter of when you’re right, you’re right.
In effect, he attributes the capital’s malaise to a failure of character. Trump says career politicians are all much alike, and it doesn’t much matter whether they’re Democrats or Republicans: They know how to talk, and talk, and talk, but not how to get something done.
My neighbor would ask, “Is he wrong?”
Alas, not entirely. One of Washington’s working assumptions is that it doesn’t matter how little the government actually achieves or how far Congress and the White House sink in popular esteem. The view seems to be that if literally nobody bothered to vote, that could be a problem – but as long as a few people keep turning out to record a preference, candidates can get elected and the system remains viable, if not as a method of government then at least as a rewarding career path and a way to gratify political ambition.
At some point, perhaps, voters may decide enough is enough and do something rash. It may not be Trump, but others will come along. Meantime, if nothing else, The Donald has called Washington’s limitless complacency into question.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.