Roger’s Rules

The Primaries Are Over. Why Haven't the 2016 Oddities Stopped?

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

There’s not a lot that supporters of Donald Trump, supporters of Hillary Clinton, and supporters of a bright future for the United States of America agree about. Following my usual policy of fostering comity and mutual understanding, however, I am happy to have isolated one important bit of common ground that partisans of all stripes can agree on: this has been a very odd campaign season.

While that may not seem like much to work with, recognition of that oddity does contain a potentially fecund seed. Much depends on the exact valence of the relevant tense: it has been a very odd campaign. But does the oddity continue?

There is something about the disposition of most humans that encourages the belief that what is will continue to be. Our lives, we believe, will continue on tomorrow pretty much as they did today and the day before that. This election season was plenty odd — the rise but not (yet) the fall of Donald Trump, the persistence of Bernie Sanders, the steady march forward of the scandal-encumbered wife of Bill Clinton. Amazing, isn’t it?

But every step along the way the larger narrative has operated like a self-sealing fuel tank. No matter how seriously it was punctured, a gelatinous ooze of conventional wisdom was excreted to preserve the story we’d all agreed upon (didn’t we?) before.

No matter how many primaries Bernie Sanders won, no matter what breaches of national security the FBI uncovered, Hillary was the agreed-upon nominee. Nothing was going to change that. Unless, of course, something does.

Donald Trump’s oddity is of a different character. Many observations, my own included, postulated that the hot air balloon that was Trump’s campaign would, after its spectacular ascent, come plummeting back to Earth. In January, I speculated:

[The] best historical parallel for the Trump phenomenon is encapsulated in the title of Charles Mackay’s classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of CrowdsMackay 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 is the giddy rapidity of ascent followed by sudden and cataclysmic collapse once the spell is broken, which it always is.

Is it? I think so, though predicting the exact moment of cathartic disillusionment is a difficult matter and one that I, alas, got very wrong. Back in July of 2015, when I first wrote about Trump, I said:

I don’t think Donald Trump will be the GOP candidate in 2016, and I don’t think he would win if he were. But [I continued] he has raised some issues that the high and mighty dispensers of conventional wisdom would do well to ponder. Moreover, he has done it in a way that, though terribly, terribly vulgar, is catapulting Trump to first place in the polls. What does that tell us? That the people are stupid and need to be guided by the suits in Washington?

If you believe that, I submit, you are going to be profoundly disappointed come November 2016.

Notwithstanding Trump’s anointment as the “presumptive Republican nominee,” I continue to abide by my speculations of last July:

  1. Trump is unlikely to be the Republican nominee;
  2. If he is the nominee, he is very likely to lose the election;
  3. Trump has tapped into a vein of disillusionment and anger that the political establishment, Republican every bit as much as Democratic, would prefer to deny or at least ignore;
  4. That disillusionment and anger is likely to have profound electoral consequences in November.

You may grumble about those opinions, but I suspect you will laugh out loud when I tell you that I also think it is quite possible that Hillary will not be her party’s nominee, either.

I acknowledge her many advantages: money, first of all, and the collusion of the media which may immunize her against the consequences of the multiple felonies she has committed.

Still — and this brings me to my main point — there is no reason to believe that the supreme oddity that has characterized this primary season has run its course.

Nowhere is it written that the oddity had to end when Hillary swept California and declared herself the victor. Nowhere is it ordained that, when Trump’s one serious rival, Ted Cruz, dropped out, The Donald was ipso facto the nominee.

There is a powerful tendency to believe that, whatever local disruptions we face in the course of life’s vicissitudes, “normality” will soon reassert itself and the status quo ante will reinstall itself in the driver’s seat. In this primary season, that tendency has shown itself in the sudden eclipse of Bernie Sanders who, just a few weeks ago, was touted as serious competition for the most corrupt candidate in living memory. It has shown itself also, though with a slightly different inflection, in the Republican Party’s loud if tentative embrace of Trump after the Indiana primary, and in Ted Cruz’s withdrawal. (How did it happen? Hayek has the explanation.)

It has also showed itself this last couple of weeks as that tentativeness turned first impatient and (the phase we are in just now) rancorous.

Everywhere one turns, one sees stories about how Trump’s campaign is faltering or suddenly imploding. Trump has about 30 people on his campaign payroll; Hillary has more than 700. He refuses to court GOP donors; Hillary is on track to collar $1.2 billion for the campaign. Trump’s ouster yesterday of long-time campaign manager Corey Lewandowski tokens the profound disarray of his campaign.

As I say, my aim here is to spread sweetness and light, not dissension. Whether you embrace or repudiate Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton doesn’t signify in the context of my contention: the oddity of this campaign season is not over. We are likely to see not just local disturbances like the sudden sacking of campaign managers, but spectacular changes, reversals, upsets, and dei ex machina. 

It would in some ways be soothing to think that after a rambunctious fall and winter, we are back on track and it’s business as usual from here until November. The pressure for that to happen is enormous. But the countervailing pressures — from the progress of the FBI’s investigations into Hillary’s corruption and violation of national security to Donald Trump’s seeming inability to transition from loudmouth to team player — are also enormous.

The media was only too happy to give Donald Trump a free ride when he was picking off plausible Republican candidates one by one. Now that it seems to be down to him and Hillary, they will turn on him and help Hillary destroy him. It’s happening already.

The Republican chair Reince Priebus sees it; so does Speaker Paul Ryan. They’ve already moved from tepid endorsement of Trump to nervous equivocation. Trump has less than a month to turn his rabble-rousing spectacles into a campaign. I suppose it’s possible he will do so. But possibility is cheap. It’s probable the unraveling of his candidacy will accelerate.

What happens then? I don’t know. But all concerned would be well-advised to keep the concession stand for this entertainment open. There are some noteworthy novelty acts still to come.