As expected, Donald Trump won the Nevada caucus handily. Nevada, casino capital of the country, is Donald Trump’s sort of place. Naturally, his supporters are ecstatic, and congratulations to them. As I wrote just a few days ago, however, it is premature for Mrs. Trump to be checking out new curtains for the Oval Office.
Lou Cannon is right: there is nothing inevitable about Donald’s Trump’s nomination (to say nothing of his election, should he be nominated). Here are a few of the things Cannon adduces:
- With last night’s win, Trump has only 79 of the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination. 79, Kemo Sabe.
- He is “stuck” in the mid-30s of support, sufficient to win primaries with a platoon of candidates but not in a head-to-head race.
- Trump had the lowest percentage of any South Carolina primary winner in the last 10 contests.
- Late-deciding voters broke against Trump, giving him a victory margin less than his lead in pre-primary polls.
- Jeb Bush’s withdrawal helps Trump’s opponents.
- Trump has sky-high unfavorable ratings, with 28 percent of Republicans saying they’d never vote for him. Indeed, Gallup’s surveys show Trump has the highest unfavorables of any presidential candidate in modern history, a net minus 70 among Democrats and a net minus 27 among independents.
I am not saying that Trump cannot win the nomination, merely that I don’t think he will: hence my addition of a question mark to the word “nominee” on the graphic from this morning’s Drudge Report. Trump’s performance — or, more to the point, the performance of the two remaining serious candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — will be the deciding factor.
As we wait, however, it is useful to step back and reflect on what has happened with respect to Donald Trump over the last several months. When I first wrote about him in July, people mostly regarded him as a joke. But as I wrote then — how long ago it seems! — “What only a few commentators have cottoned on to is that Trump has touched a nerve”:
His popularity may be fragile, may even be illusory. But he has, in his semi-articulate jabbering, reminded people that there is a world outside the beltway. It’s partly a matter of substance, partly style. People in many parts of the country are appalled by the flood of illegal immigrants that is changing the character of this country. Trump speaks to that. He also, quite obviously, eschews the focus groups. … He says what he thinks. It would be nice, perhaps, if the path between his cerebellum and his mouth were a bit longer and more circumspect, but his bluntness plays to the masses. He delights in tweaking the politically correct establishment.
The narrative back then was that Trump would say something so outrageous that the electorate would rise up, and in a great access of psephological peristalsis, expel Trump from the body politic. It was supposed to happen after Trump made his remarks about John McCain not being his sort of hero. I was at a dinner party the day that happened and listened with cocked eyebrow (so to speak) as a well-known pundit assured the table that Trump’s disgusting remarks had just ended his candidacy. I believed he had him another day or two at most. That was in July.
It seems to me that there are two things to appreciate about the Trump phenomenon — two things in addition to the brute fact that he, like demagogues of yore, is giving voice to a profound, semi-articulate rage against business as usual in Washington, against everything that comes under that strange, elastic rubric “establishment.”
First, Trump is to a large extent a myth created and sustained by the media (the link is to an earlier column by me on that phenomenon). Like most myths, this one comes with a story. Chapter One: Trump is impossible. He is (as I wrote here) “an embarrassment, a “complete idiot” (Karl Rove), “offensive and outlandish” (Marco Rubio). “Every candidate for president,” wrote Lindsey Graham (remember him?) in a tweet, “needs to do the right thing & condemn” Trump. That was after Trump’s remarks about Rosie O’Donnell (“a fat pig”), Megyn Kelly (the sanguinary comments), and Jeb Bush (“low energy”) but before his comments on Bill Clinton’s womanizing and the pope’s questioning of Trump’s status as a Christian.
By the time Trump neutered Bill Clinton, we were well into Chapter Two. Somehow, Trump had gone from being impossible to being inevitable more or less overnight. Now he had “momentum.” The large and enthusiastic crowds were suddenly evidence not of the incontinent emotions of his followers, but the inevitability of his nomination.
Neither story was accurate. Donald Trump was never impossible. Nor is he now inevitable. It would be useful to have some of Donald Trump’s golf partners step forward.
On Monday, a well placed friend told me that over the years he had run into many of Trump’s partners on the links. “He doesn’t only cheat in every game,” my friend said, “He cheats on every hole. You can hear the splash of a ball going into the pond. But when his partners catch up to Trump, they find him standing over his ball on the fairway, claiming that that’s where the ball landed.”
This is of a piece with Trump’s sullied reputation as a businessman. I have heard from several sources that his common procedure is to pay his creditors 75% or 80% of what he owes them and then, when they ask for the balance, tell them to sue. I suspect we will be hearing a lot about Donald Trump’s business practices in the coming weeks. By all accounts, it will tell the story of an unscrupulous bully and cheat.
Much has been made of Trump’s populist appeal. That appeal will vanish, I predict, once Trump’s character is subject to the scrutiny it deserves.
Exactly a month ago, I wrote about Trump and “the madness of crowds.” The phrase was from Charles Mackay’s classic book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. For the moment, I noted, Trump occupies that empyrean of seeming invulnerability that occasionally cloaks movements of ecstatic enthusiasm. Point out Trump’s past support for Hillary, for Obama, for Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, mention his abuse of eminent domain to grab private property for his casinos, and his acolytes will respond: “He just did what he had to do to make his business succeed.” Couldn’t John Gotti have said the same thing?
Mackay was writing about such curiosities as Tulipmania in 17th century Holland, when a single bulb could, briefly, be traded for the price of a mansion, or various money or stock schemes like the South Sea Bubble or the Mississippi Scheme or the (perhaps more pertinent in this case) “the popular admiration for great thieves.” A common thread of these admonitory tales, I noted, “is the giddy rapidity of ascent followed by sudden and cataclysmic collapse once the spell is broken, which it always is.”
The $64,000 question, of course, is exactly when the rude awakening will come. I pray it will not be too late.