As I looked at the data from the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, I wondered who on the list could actually dethrone surging frontrunner Donald Trump (other than Donald himself, of course) at the debate on August 6 or even afterwards. Yes, I am aware how early it is and that Herman Cain was leading the pack at this point in the 2012 election. Nevertheless, I think we can stipulate the Trump phenomenon is considerably more significant. Something important is going on here.
America is an angrier and more divided country than I have ever seen it in my lifetime, even during the days of Vietnam. There were obviously more demonstrations then, but the split was minor by comparison. Nixon’s famous “silent majority” clearly existed. He won the 1972 election 520-17 electoral votes, outdrawing McGovern by some 18 million ballots. Nothing of that sort could happen now. We are chopped in half and neither side is talking to the other. America is in the slough of despond. Nobody’s happy except for random three year olds who haven’t had to confront anything yet. Barack Obama has left a depressed nation, one could almost say clinically. And if Hillary Clinton succeeds in getting elected (less likely now), it will be even worse. It will be the first time we have had a president that the majority of citizens thought was a liar on Inauguration Day. And they will be right.
So along comes Donald, 2016’s version of the “Happy Warrior” on a gold escalator wanting to make America great again. No wonder people are intrigued. Who wants more despond? He’s got energy, style. Who cares if he’s not a politician and doesn’t really know the issues, let alone have a fleshed-out position on them? Why would that matter? It never has in the past and maybe it shouldn’t.
What attracts people to Trump is that he is not a politician. Politicians are so twentieth century — and they screwed that one up quite a bit. Where Trump stands is not the point, except in the most general sense. The same voters who have damned other candidates to Hell for changing positions even once don’t seem to care at all that Donald has switched sides many times. He’s got moxie — and that’s all that counts. And again, maybe that is the most important thing. People can project on to him what they want to believe. This has worked for many past presidents — notably JFK, Reagan and, alas, Obama. (Well, nothing’s perfect.)
The candidates closest to Trump in the latest poll are Scott Walker at 15%, Jeb Bush at 14% and, interestingly, Ben Carson at 10%. (Trump has 19%.) I think all of those people will not have an easy time dethroning Trump. Jeb in particular is poorly situated, even though he was supposedly a good conservative Florida governor. Not only is he a politician, he’s from a family of politicians — sitting ducks for the anti-politician Trump.
Walker too is a bit of an anti-politician, having taken on the entrenched Wisconsin powers, but that same background is what makes it difficult for him to challenge Trump. Curiously, Carson may turn out to be Donald’s biggest threat. At the beginning of the campaign, the doctor seemed a bit confused about what was going on, but he has grown and we can assume if you’re smart enough to master neurosurgery, you can pretty well learn politics (if you have the stomach for it). Much as Donald is something of a Teflon candidate, Carson is similarly coated by his extraordinary biography. How does a celebrity casino owner criticize the first man to separate Siamese twins? (Well, Donald will think of a way if he as to. But this will be tricky.)
The current debate format (ten people on the stage at once) favors Trump. Unless he makes a stupid mistake, at those numbers he can rope-a-dope his opposition, largely ignoring them while sticking to his message. You politicians talk… I get things done. And think what would happen if Donald spent his entire allotted time attacking Hillary? Better yet, Obama himself. Challenge the president to reveal the full contents of the Iran deal, including all the secret side agreements John Kerry claims he hasn’t read. That would get everyone’s attention.
If Trump comes through the August 6 debate with poll numbers going up or even intact, he will be formidable. The next hill to climb will be his negative numbers. That will be difficult, but who am I to say it isn’t doable?