I had long believed Donald Trump to be no better than a blowhard capable of attracting fans but not votes. How wrong I was, as his victory in New Hampshire attests. But conventional wisdom and precedent offer little guidance to what comes next. With US voters even more irritable than I could have imagined, it is apparent that standards of consistency, logic and substance expected of every other Republican candidate just don’t apply to Donald Trump.
Never mind that this pompadoured contradiction has donated to the Clinton Foundation, the power couple’s all-purpose slush fund. Never mind that he praised Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. Who among his “conservative” supporters cares that his position on health care is similar to that of the socialist Bernie Sanders, who thrashed Hillary in New Hampshire. And where was Trump in 2013 when Ted Cruz, along with Senator Jeff Sessions, led the fight against amnesty for illegal aliens?
One has to see Donald Trump as a cultural phenomenon, rather than as a conventional political candidate. Back in 2012, the likes of Trump would have been laughed out of the Republican race; indeed, his promulgation of “birther” conspiracy theories about Obama rendered him a non-starter in the primaries of that year. Back then, Trump was not taken seriously precisely because the Republican base naively believed the party’s establishment would effectively oppose Obama’s attempted radical transformation of the United States. There was no perceived need nor appetite for a candidate bent on summoning the pitchforks and flaming brands of popular revolt.
Today, though, given what is widely perceived to have been the total failure of the congressional GOP leadership, voters have latched on to the candidate promising “creative” political destruction: he will tear it all down and build something allegedly better in its place, although just what Trumpism’s shining new world will look like is anyone’s guess. Interestingly, his only coherent and practically articulated policy is the promise to halt Muslim immigration. It seems that, while voters may or may not be prepared to swallow all manner of populist nonsense, they have a sharper awareness of the existential threat to the West and its values than do the political elites. The voters, in other words, may be stupid, but they are less stupid than the powers that be.
Michael Warren Davis: The Necessity of Donald Trump
They are right, too, in accepting the oft-demonstrated truth that nothing can equal the stupidity of what passes for the Republican Party establishment. The three-cornered campaign of mutual destruction between Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie in New Hampshire has ensured that none can emerge as the standard bearer, as did Mitt Romney in 2012. Indeed, having quite probably destroyed Rubio’s candidature without any gain to his own, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has now withdrawn from the race. Bush staggers on to South Carolina, driven on by dynastic entitlement and having blown $35 million to secure no better than fourth place in New Hampshire. Whatever one makes of Rubio’s gaffes and errors, the original announcement of his candidature effectively relegated Bush to the status of yesterday’s man. Bush’s decision to run manifested the fusion of wishful thinking and a sense of blind, selfish entitlement — the perfect catalyst for provoking Trump to join the race. The fund-raising prowess of the Bush campaign is its sole achievement — a demonstration of the simple fact that the big money backers is not necessarily the smart money.
Political candidates can survive fear and hatred, but they cannot survive ridicule. Rubio’s robotic repetitions in response to attacks by Chris Christie have made him the butt of jokes from which he may never recover. Back in 2012, Texas’ Rick Perry suffered a prime-time memory lapse which destroyed his candidature. Never mind that he might well have made a decent president, nor that stumbling might have been due to temporary health issues. Once Perry became an object of laughter and derision his presidential hopes were dashed once and forever. Unless he can stage a Lazarus-like revival, Rubio appears destined to share the same fate.
Going forward, we can also forget about John Kasich. While he scored 16% in New Hampshire, nationally the pollsters say he is Mr Two Percent. The only GOP candidates who still matter are Trump, Cruz, Bush and, just maybe, Rubio, whose looming doom may be one of the great political tragedies. Meanwhile, Bush’s limping presence on the campaign trail may do no more than fuel Trump’s ascent by reminding voters of the difference between the Establishment’s favoured son and the incendiary populist. In terms of support and blunt numbers, neither Rubio nor Bush can hope to unite their restive party’s supporters. By contrast, Trump and Cruz taken together can claim the allegiance of at least half the Republican base.
What can derail Donald Trump? Clearly, a campaign that depicts him as mad, bad and dangerous only serves to further enthuse his supporters. Ridicule is the only effective weapon. Maybe, Cruz’s latest campaign advertisement is a step in that direction. Ultimately, the Republican establishment will have to choose: Trump or Cruz. There is little reason to expect wisdom in that decision.