Everyone greeted Donald Trump’s entry into the presidential contest as a joke. He receives near-universal scorn from the Republican establishment, conservative thought leaders and the media. No one has a kind word for him. No one, that is, except voters. Polls show him surging in New Hampshire, and it seems likely he will make the cut for the first GOP presidential debates, while more accomplished candidates such as Govs. Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie may not.
Pundits scratch their heads over Trump’s early success — the “Trump bump” — but the only surprise is that everyone is surprised. This script ought to be familiar by now, including its ending: He won’t make it.
But we love the story while it lasts. Americans of all parties — especially conservatives and populists in what is sometimes called the “angry middle” of non-ideological voters who dislike politicians — always hearken to the plain-speaking outsider, the non-politician who will “tell it like it is.” We like their candor, flamboyance and the novelty of a non-politician running for office. Who doesn’t thrill to Trump saying that Washington politicians are “incompetent” and “full of [bovine excrement]”?
Trump has plenty of predecessors. Going back to the 1980s, there was a boomlet for Lee Iacocca, then coming off the Chrysler turnaround that conveniently featured lots of TV ads featuring ... Lee Iacocca. Both parties wooed him for lesser posts, but he eventually chose the elder-statesman status that’s more comfortable for business leaders who realize executive adulation is as good as it gets.
The Trump of 1992 was Ross Perot, who briefly led George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the polls until he unleashed his inner crazy. But he still got nearly 20% of the popular vote.
In the 2012 Republican contest it was Herman Cain who dazzled for a while before fading. It looked like Ben Carson’s turn this time, except he’s got very credible competition for the non-politician slot from Carly Fiorina (who continues to impress the conservative grass-roots) and now Trump.
Outsider candidacies have several traits in common. First, they are real or near celebrities with recognizable names; they don’t rise from nowhere, as Jimmy Carter did in 1976.
Second, they exploit a general disgust with “the mess in Washington.” It is not a coincidence that most of our recent presidential winners in both parties were governors who ran against Washington. (Even Barack Obama ran his campaign with an outsider pose.) But the novelty candidates sound this theme more persistently.
Finally, they seize on an issue that resonates with some of the public but deadlocks the two parties.
In 1992, Perot hammered away at the federal budget deficit. Trump’s incendiary comments on Mexican immigrants tapped into public frustration — not all of it motivated by racism or anti-immigrant views — that Washington cannot get a grip on the matter.
Sometimes outsider candidates have succeeded in gaining office on the state or local level, such as Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, Arnold Schwarzenegger in California (and don’t forget Mayors Sonny Bono of Palm Springs and Clint Eastwood of Carmel). Or, from the business world, Rick Scott in Florida, Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Michael Bloomberg in New York City. Trump is a twofer: a pop culture celebrity and a business titan.
But notice that we’ve never put one of these far outsiders in the White House. Herbert Hoover doesn’t really count: He’d been secretary of Commerce for eight years. Dwight Eisenhower doesn’t fit the mold either: Both parties wanted him as their nominee, and he ran as a cautious, conventional leader.
The brazen outsider never succeeds because ultimately the “median voter” beloved of political scientists actually prefers blandness to candor. The outspokenness that sends candidates like Trump aloft eventually costs more votes than it gains, as the accumulation of mistakes and controversies take a toll.
This is not to say that a person of strong views can’t get elected; they merely need to have considerable political skill. Ronald Reagan and Obama both knew how to navigate a campaign. Trump does not. He’ll be gone by Thanksgiving.
Steven F. Hayward is a visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy and the author of “The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989.”