Every four years, conservative Republicans get excited at the prospect of nominating a true believer, and every four years, they find themselves outmaneuvered by a moderate with high name recognition and serious difficulties differentiating himself from Democrats on major issues. That moderate candidate generally sweeps up the nominating contest with a strong showing in the more liberal Northeast, states like Connecticut, Delaware, and New York.
After real estate tycoon Donald Trump won those states in the “Acela primary,” media outlets and Republican operatives started accepting his [rather quite false] declaration that he is the “presumptive nominee.” These very actions led Erick Erickson to say that Trump’s major challenger, Ted Cruz, must have some serious wind behind him. Erickson noted that the reports of Trump’s inevitable nomination “read not so much defeatist as suppressive.” Could this be because Cruz has an increasing chance at winning Indiana, after Governor Mike Pence’s endorsement?
Indeed, the attacks against Cruz have strained credulity. Former House Speaker John Boehner actually called the Texas senator “Lucifer in the flesh” this week. At the same time, Boehner noted that Trump was his golfing buddy, and fit in some praise for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. This led U.S. Senator Mike Lee to say, “Donald Trump is the establishment.”
While many Republican leaders are joining The Donald’s campaign rather late, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie backed him in late February. But these are sideshows to the real argument as to why Trump should be considered an “establishment” candidate. That has less to do with the GOP leaders backing him, and more to do with his history of crony capitalism and his manipulation of the media.
For the full reasons why Trump is the ultimate “establishment” candidate, we have to turn back to the beginning of the race and understand how the tycoon with no government experience led all the early polls, and how this “shocking” development virtually ensured his rise. There are three major reasons why Trump had the headwind for most of the primary — reasons that have very little to do with his support for a border wall or his insistence that our foreign policy should be “America First.”
1. The Power of Name Recognition
Did you ever wonder why incumbents have a much better chance of being re-elected over their challengers? This is especially true in primaries, where more conservative candidates (or more liberal ones) often challenge a sitting congressman or senator who seems to have sold out his or her principles for power.
Challengers face an uphill battle less because the incumbent is popular and more because the voters actually know who that person is. Name recognition is a huge part of any primary, and sitting congressmen or senators have numerous benefits in this regard: News outlets report on their actions and votes, companies and local public institutions often praise or at least mention their names, and the incumbents can reach out to constituents year-round, before and after every election. Incumbents usually win because voters know who they are, while challengers are shrouded in mystery.
On the presidential level, this problem is magnified a hundred-fold. Media outlets try to cover candidates as much and as fairly as possible, but that’s far from easy — especially when you’re dealing with 17 (!) different candidates. When a pollster calls and asks the average voter, “whom do you support of these people: George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, or Donald Trump?” that voter is probably not going to know who most of the people are. Especially early in the race, very few of the candidates were well-known, or known much at all.
Next Page: Surprise, surprise, everyone knew who Trump was.
A Gallup poll from July 2015 illustrates the situation well. Only 35 percent of Republicans were familiar with Ohio Governor John Kasich at that point in the race, slightly fewer than the 39 percent who knew about former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Even fairly popular candidates like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson were relatively unknown, familiar to only 52 percent and 50 percent of Republicans, respectively.
While 81 percent of Republicans were familiar with Jeb Bush, only 64 percent said so for Marco Rubio, and 66 percent for Ted Cruz. Donald Trump, however, enjoyed near universal name recognition, as 92 percent of Republicans knew him well enough to have an opinion (mostly negative) about him.
Naturally, voters slowly learned about other candidates, but it should not have been that surprising that Trump led in early polls, largely because he was the most-known. Sometimes it helps to be a reality tv star, to serve as a beauty pageant judge, and to plaster your name across prominent buildings in New York and Las Vegas.
2. The Media Frenzy
Despite these inherent advantages, and the fact that Trump had no direct political baggage, news outlets went bonkers when he ended up leading in the polls. The media had a field day, mocking him constantly, but because so many Americans distrust the media, this only helped bolster his poll numbers.
The New York Times estimated that media coverage has been worth $1.9 billion to The Donald’s campaign. To put this in perspective, Jeb Bush — notorious for his fundraising ability — raised only $162 million, while Ted Cruz — the top remaining GOP fundraiser — has raised $140.5 million, and Hillary Clinton has raised $262.7 million. Trump amassed a media empire that put all three of them to shame, at virtually no cost to himself.
Furthermore, Trump’s tons of media coverage masked the fact that he always had horrible approval ratings. Many poll reports emphasized that Trump was seen as the most electable candidate, and this led many Republicans to think of him as a strong challenger to Hillary Clinton.
In addition to news stories about Trump’s strong poll numbers, Nate Silver revealed two other kinds of media reports that saturated viewers with The Donald. One common news trope pitted Trump against “the establishment,” suggesting that his candidacy was somehow a threat to the Republican status quo. The other focused on The Donald’s absurd comments — including, but not limited to, his insult of John McCain, saying “I like people who weren’t captured,” and his attack on Megyn Kelly for having “blood coming out of her…whatever.”
The average Republican took quite a few impressions from all this. Distrusting of the media but listening to it just enough to understand what’s going on, he would conclude that Trump is unafraid to speak his mind, that he’s shaking up a weak Republican Party, and that he is not only popular, but a strong, “electable” candidate. All of these impressions seem utterly reasonable, but the last two are utterly false.
Next Page: Why The Donald represents more of the status quo.
3. The Most Connected Candidate
It has become common knowledge that Donald Trump, the “man who cannot be bought,” donated heavily to politicians during his career in real estate. He has boasted about giving to “both sides,” and about manipulating politicians to do his will, but isn’t this exactly the system we want to reform? As one Ted Cruz ad put it, “Donald Trump won’t change the system. He’s what’s wrong with it.”
Nothing best illustrates Trump’s connection to power better than his push to bulldoze an elderly widow’s home — to build a limousine parking lot! The Donald didn’t just want this lady’s property, he asked the government to take it from her. Eminent domain is the process by which the government takes private land for public use. It has its proper role, but can very easily be abused by private interests who cozy up to big government for favors. Trump lost this particular case, but the fact that he even tried to do something this despicable is an indelible black mark on his record.
Furthermore, The Donald has supported policies that are less than conservative in the past, and that’s putting it mildly. Trump backed single-payer healthcare, one of Bernie Sanders’ favorite policies. Most recently, however, the poster boy for fighting political correctness sided with the thought police on the issue of transgender bathroom use.
The Donald once proudly proclaimed himself “pro-choice,” and he recently defended Planned Parenthood. His switch to supporting the other side of the issue was not only recent — there is some evidence to consider it altogether fake. In one of the most embarrassing moments of his campaign, he openly declared that women who seek abortions should be punished, angering both sides of the debate, before he backed away from his comments.
Indeed, backing away from comments has become a signature move of the Trump campaign, and it seems a clever way to court angry voters without actually taking a stance on anything. This has fostered a mentality where fans of The Donald take him at his word when they agree with him, and willfully reject the idea that he will keep his word when he says things they disagree with. In other words, they have become sycophantic, turning Trump into a theoretical savior in their mind’s eye while ignoring the contradictions of the real man.
The New York Post, in its endorsement of Trump this month, seemed to do just that. It outwardly criticized many of Trump’s positions, calling him a “rookie” and urging him to dial back the rhetoric, but nevertheless supported him because he opposes political correctness — a thing against which Ted Cruz also constantly rails.
This haziness has enabled Trump to leverage his friendships even further. The Donald famously paid Bill and Hillary Clinton to attend his wedding, and John Boehner just admitted that they have been golf buddies for a long time. Trump’s friendships with those in power are not just his method of gaining what he wants — they are yet another proof that he is this year’s true “establishment” candidate.
Of course, his supporters will never admit it, but the man they back is the very image of what they claim to hate so much. They rail against privilege, against big businesses taking their jobs overseas, against Republicans who go along to get along. Trump is the poster boy of privilege (“a small loan of a million dollars”), he tried to use government to take away an old lady’s home, and he is known for “making deals.”
When his companies went bankrupt, what deals did he make then? Were those “great deals,” or were they simply the foretaste of another four years of Republican leadership even more flaccid than John Boehner? Trump already surrendered on transgender issues — where will he give in next?