WASHINGTON, Jan. 14, 2016 — A danger of opining on politics in print is that it gives you so many opportunities to be wrong. Hence the habit of political commentators to festoon their work with weasel-words and phrases: “probably”; “if”; “as currently seems likely”; “apparently.”
Budding journalists are warned not to use the word “I.” But we weren’t wrong, an abstract journalist wasn’t wrong, the portents weren’t wrong. I was wrong.
It was easy to dismiss Donald Trump and his presidential aspirations last summer as a sideshow, a distraction, a flash in the pan. The conventional wisdom was that Trump would fade as serious candidates took over. Seasoned political hands and Republican Party elders would ensure that gravitas and political good breeding won the day.
So where is Mr. Gravitas, Jeb Bush? His super-PAC, a Citizens United-fueled juggernaut, has burned through over $50 million, and Bush remains a low-energy candidate lost in a crowd of ciphers. He stands with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and retired Texas Sen. Phil Gramm as proof that there’s more to political success than money, and whatever it is, he doesn’t have it.
Trump has spent less on his campaign than any of his major GOP rivals. He has no super-PAC, no big donors, and he hasn’t even spent much of his own money. He has no staff of political consultants poring over data and massaging and triangulating his message. From the looks of it, he doesn’t even have a speech writer. But whatever the “it” is that Jeb Bush doesn’t have, Trump has it in spades.
At first, through the lens of conventional wisdom, Trump’s lack of a professional team of handlers and speech-writers looked like a problem. His announcement speech was a rambling, off-the-cuff horror, filled with bizarre non-sequiturs and seemingly gratuitous slams at Mexican immigrants. It brought him a lot of scorn and cost him some business relationships; Univision and NBC both severed their ties with him.
His critics sniffed condescendingly at his speech and declared him a hopeless disaster. He moved on serenely, ignoring us as the nobodies we were. He was right; we were wrong.
Trump lost the Miss Universe pageant, bought it back, and flipped it right away like a cheap property with no long-term potential. You can imagine his grin over the Miss Universe fiasco in December; the show was a train wreck without him.
His announcement speech set the style and tone of his campaign. His critics judged it undisciplined and self-indulgent, the campaign of a man who’s never had anyone to tell him “no.” It would flop in no time. But he was right; we were wrong.
There is nothing programmed about Donald Trump, and his audiences love him for it. He speaks without teleprompters, instead pulling notes from his pocket before riffing on immigration, Hillary, his GOP rivals and anything else that pops into his head.
Karl Rove says that candidates should always be “on message.” The time remaining between now and the primaries is short and precious, and candidates shouldn’t waste a minute of it. Yet Trump goes on with his train-of-thought commentary, oblivious to the expectation that he should deliver serious, policy-laden speeches that spell out his message.
His message is already crystal clear; on the stump, Trump wants to engage his audience. Let Bush be the policy wonk who puts his audience to sleep with his gravitas. Trump knows what makes you mad and makes you laugh, and it sure isn’t Social Security.
A common charge leveled against Trump is that he is all about tapping into fear and anger and fanning the flames of outrage. But his performances aren’t about anger. His audience is mad about a lot of things—immigration, the southern border, a GOP establishment that cares only about holding on to power—but Trump doesn’t rouse them to fury; he entertains. He connects with his audience like no one else in the race.
He does it with chutzpah and with apparent delight.
The GOP establishment hates Donald Trump. The media have begun to realize, with growing dread, that Trump could really win, not just the nomination, but the presidency. Trump’s vulgarity, his crudity and his bigotry will be harped on relentlessly, the negative campaign against him ramped up to fever pitch.
Trump has handed his enemies a lot of ammunition, but he’s uncommonly good at highlighting their hypocrisy when they use it. Hillary slapped him for his attitudes about women, and for the next two weeks, the conversation was all about Bill. Hillary quickly shut up about Trump and women.
Liberals were scandalized at his use of “schlonged”? Tell that to the people who write about “tea baggers.”
Trump hasn’t fizzled and faded. He just keeps on going, building momentum and striking fear into the hearts of political consultants and super-PAC managers. Bush has fizzled, Walker has faded, and Rand Paul is still trying to sound relevant.
A lot of people have been wrong about Trump. I’ve been wrong about Trump. He’s not a barbarian at the political gates, not just some rich vulgarian, not a sideshow to the real campaign. He’s not an indictment of our country or of the voters.
He’s a blast of frigid, fresh air. One can only wonder, fascinated, what that blast would do to Washington.
Whether you contemplate it with dread or excitement, the odds are looking better by the day that we’ll get to see the results.