The idea seemed preposterous six months ago, but we should start wrapping our minds around the real possibility that Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States.
Trump has confounded conventional wisdom, conventional politics and all the conventional pundits and campaign professionals. He won in New Hampshire, he won in South Carolina and, with his easy victory in the Nevada Republican caucuses, he moved beyond the narrow base of support he enjoys among working-class white men. In Nevada, everyone went for Trump.
“So, we won the evangelicals,” Trump said in his Las Vegas victory speech. “We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated! We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people, and you know what I’m happy about? Because I’ve been saying it for a long time: 46% were the Hispanics. Forty-six percent, No. 1 with Hispanics. I’m really happy about that.”
Republican operatives who still deny there is a Trump in their future claim to perceive three tracks to the nomination. One track is among the angry voters. Trump has them. One is among staunch conservatives and evangelicals, supposedly the core supporters of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. And one is the “establishment” route peopled by moderate conservatives who may be leaning toward Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. By this analysis, there are still two ways to prevent Trump from winning the GOP presidential nomination.
Nevada undercuts this scenario because, as Trump said, he won among evangelicals. He won the hard right, as well as those who describe themselves as moderate. There is no group within the Republican fold, other than billionaire donors and elected officials, that is not trending toward Trump. If, as is expected, he wins most of the 12 states in next Tuesday’s glut of primaries, it gets much harder to imagine how he can be stopped.
“Surely, though,” all you liberals out there are thinking, “he’ll crash and burn in November. Everybody hates him!”
Well, a lot of people hate him, but a lot of people hate Hillary Clinton, too. They are lightning rod candidates, each adored and loathed in strong measure. It’s easy to see why so many female voters and Latinos cannot stand The Donald and why so many sophisticated people in faculty lounges, book groups, Unitarian congregations and male drumming circles are both amused and appalled by his rude, crude and sometimes lewd persona. What has been harder to grasp is his powerful appeal to those who are turning out at his rallies and voting for him.
Trump does not give speeches; he rambles. He does not propose detailed policies; he repeats a few vague notions — “Build a wall!” When his supporters assert that he is brave enough to say what’s secretly on their minds, one might conclude there is a great deal of very simpleminded thought going on in this country. Trump’s appeal is mystifying if judged by the usual political standards — which is why his candidacy needs to be scrutinized very differently.
On Tuesday night, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews cut through the horse-race chatter with some real insight. Trump’s meandering performances in front of his fans are more than a recitation of boasts and insults, Matthews observed. When Trump calls his opponents weak or brags about his billions or excoriates Mexico and China, he is letting his people in on a joke, Matthews said. It is as if Trump is winking and saying, “Hey, this is all smack talk and you know it, but isn’t it fun driving all these politically correct people crazy?” Trump’s very personalized, informal oratory makes folks in the crowd feel included. They can see themselves as members of a tough, brazen, winning team.
Even more important, in Matthews’ analysis, is Trump’s core message: America will win again. Trump does not talk policy. He does not talk about the legislation he will sign. He does not talk about government, nor does he spend much time ticking off the standard bromides on the conservative checklist. Trump talks about the country and how he will make it great again.
It is a ridiculously facile message, but, for millions of Americans who feel like things are not so great, it is the one they have longed to hear. Other candidates, including Hillary Clinton, may say more or less the same thing, but then they load on complexities and caveats. Trump keeps it simple.
“We’re going to be the smart people,” Trump told his supporters Tuesday night. “We’re not going to be the people that get pushed around all over the place. We’re going to be the smart people. You’re going to be proud of your president, and you’re going to be even prouder of your country, OK?”