Like many members of the media, I have spent much of the past six months pretending I have some idea of what will happen in the presidential election. Specifically, I have maintained a sanguine and somewhat bemused certainty that, whatever else happens, there will be no President Trump.
Today, with every meaning of this phrase, I fear I have been mistaken. At this moment, with the final Des Moines Register poll in and considering what I have seen and read about Trump’s supporters in Iowa and elsewhere, it would be foolish to say that President Trump isn’t a possibility. And that is terrifying.
Here are the things I have said to tamp down the notion that Trump could win the nomination:
“The establishment Republicans will rally behind a candidate.”
“He doesn’t speak the language of the evangelical voter.”
“Veterans will see right through him.”
“He doesn’t have a real infrastructure or ground game.”
“You can’t win without making significant ad buys.”
“His negatives are too high to get very far.”
“His supporters aren’t dedicated enough to caucus.”
I’m still holding on to some hope for the last one. (Not since high school have I wished so fervently for a snow day.) The rest of these assumptions have either been falsified or called into significant question.
You’ll notice I didn’t even both listing the numerous things Trump has said to offend people. I have stopped believing it is possible for Trump to give offense—or, rather, I have stopped believing that giving offense is a reason people would cease to support him.
All he really needs to do is win Iowa—an increasingly likely outcome. After that… Well, tell me the first state he’ll lose. Not New Hampshire (leads by 18). Not South Carolina (leads by 15). Not Nevada (leads by 12). Super Tuesday states have been infrequently polled, but the two with the biggest delegate prizes (proportionally distributed) have recent results. Trump leads in Georgia by 10 points, and in Texas the “poll of polls” has him closing the gap with, ahem, “native son” Cruz to just two points. In Florida, he leads by 17 points.
What’s more, polls of a shrinking field seem to suggest that as long as a standard-bearer for the establishment remains in the race, Trump will continue to dominate. Cruz emerges the victor only in a head-to-head battle—a bittersweet indication for Cruz that he is not quite as hated by moderate Republicans as he either claims or should be.
I will refrain from running through specific general election scenarios, because—she sighs heavily—we are not there yet. Here is where we are: The strong possibility that Trump will get the GOP nomination, and that means that there is a non-zero chance that he will win the general election.
Non-zero is, to say the least, less that certain, but it’s a greater chance than most political professionals have given him up until… now. And non-zero is enough to scare the shit out of me.
Rationally, a Trump primary victory is clearly disturbing, but until this week I hadn’t considered it beyond an uncomfortable commentary on the Republican electorate on the way to a certain Democratic victory.
If we—I—have been so wrong about Trump’s chances at making to the general, then I think it’s only appropriate to question all our assumptions about his chances nationally.
I spent much of this week reading and watching interviews with Trump supporters. I’d taken the previously reported incidents of slurs and scuffles at rallies seriously, of course. But a distracting voice in my head countered that crowds take on their own personalities, that protesters often intend to provoke responses, and that, besides, could you really ascribe the same level of ugliness to everyone? Surely, those responses were the extreme of the extreme.
Go read the report put together by CNN. It’s a collection of quotes left to stand mostly on their own, taken not from those kicking and punching and shouting but the rest of the crowd. There is nothing new here, not really, it’s the same ill-informed nationalist doggerel as he spouts. It’s chilling not because it’s somehow more extreme than you thought it’d be but rather because their complaints are so uniform and matter-of-fact:
“White Americans founded this country,” one 64-year-old woman told CNN. “We are being pushed aside because of the President’s administration and the media.”
A recent study delivered statistical proof of the mindset only implied by the language: Trump supporters are attracted to a quality that goes beyond “being a successful businessman.” They are attracted to his authoritarianism. They are, in fact, in favor of turning authoritarian ideas into policy:
Trump voters exhibit statistically significant and substantive authoritarian attitudes. For example, Trump voters are statistically more likely to agree that other groups should sometimes be kept in their place. They support preventing minority opposition once we decide what is right.
Trump supporters kick the fundamental tenets of Madisonian democracy to the curb, asserting that the rights of minorities need not be protected from the power of the majority. And they are statistically more likely than Trump opponents to agree the president should curtail the voice and vote of the opposition when it is necessary to protect the country.
To put it another way. The frightening thing about Trump voters is not that they’re angry, it’s that they believe they’re right—and they believe they’re winning.
Trump has, to use language Trumpkins would likely sneer at, empowered them. That sense of empowerment matters because the difference between authoritarians and populists is any sense of respect for minority opinions. In a world run by authoritarians, the only break on unjust behavior is whether you can get away it.
So, now, imagine a Trump nomination. Imagine how empowering that would be, and to whom.
There are two prevailing theories for why journalists and data crunchers got Trump’s trajectory wrong. One argument has it that Trump’s candidacy is a "black swan event”—an unprecedented amalgam of unreproducible and unpredictable circumstances, simply too weird to have foreseen.
I like that theory because it lets us off the hook, somewhat. And, well, it’s not an inaccurate description… but it’s really more of a description than an explanation. What’s more: All swans look gray in the rearview mirror. The end of Trump might look like the rise of nationalism in Europe or might look like Goldwater’s defeat. But it will look like something that has happened before, because everything does.
Another theory as to pundits’ blinkeredness, popular on the right, has it that we in the political world were simply too caught up in our cocktails and TV green room chatter to notice what was going on out there in “real America.”
This certainly feels close to the truth. There is darkness to be found out there, in the rallying around Kim Davis and the rejection of civil rights in Houston. On the other hand: “Real America” is multifaceted and self-contradictory, like most other real things. Americans show growing support for an increased minimum wage and police body cameras, and young people have a historically high rate of interracial dating. How were we supposed to pick out the authoritarian strain from the progressive one?
I think we didn’t see Trump coming because we lacked imagination.
Science fiction has done a better job at predicting Trump's success than political science has, after all. Neal Stephenson’s Interface describes a candidate guided via the input of real-time polling data directly into his brain. (He even decides to skip a debate.) Dark Mirror has plumbed the phenomenon of "a “joke” candidate becoming so popular that the forces behind him slip easily into despotism and violence.
Social scientists and journalists imprison themselves behind conventional wisdom and, to a lesser extent, evidence—the dark impulses that fuel Trump’s supporters have been mostly invisible to the naked eye: Sure, around the fringes of the Tea Party and in the twisty bowels of Internet comments, once could sense the anger and racism, but I avoided looking into the abyss and preferred instead to gesture toward the more intelligible gamesmanship of Washington insiders.
It's no secret that Trump’s rise has created history’s longest hot mic moment for the media. We have been caught without a script, and the rote truisms and filler material that usually fills the awkward silences have proven increasingly inappropriate to the unprecedented tragicomedy playing out before us.
I now see what my problem was: In discounting Trump’s chances, I relied on guidance from history and reason. These are inadequate defenses against the forces at work in Trump’s rise.
Logic didn’t help us foresee him and won’t work against him. We can’t argue policy, we are going to need something more like a Patronus.
I am not endorsing magical thinking; beliefs in no-cost shortcuts, legends, and mythical creatures are what brought us Trump. But we will need more than debate, a force stronger than facts.
I suspect we’ll need love: love for our country, for the people in it, for the ideas it stands for.
We have to love our country and what it can be more than Trump supporters fear what they believe it’s becoming. His power stems from their belief in that darkness—and with persistence and patience and heart, we’re going to have to make them see the light.