These are, as the Chinese curse goes, interesting times. In a Republican presidential debate, the leading candidate defends the size of his penis and attacks the Constitution, asserting that he will order the U.S. military to commit war crimes. A few days earlier the same candidate said on national television that he had to “do research” on the KKK, David Duke, and white supremacism before he could take a position. During the week, the frontrunner threatened Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, because the Post had dared write articles he thought critical. “And believe me, if I become president,” Trump said, “oh, do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems.”
Welcome to Donald Trump’s world. Trump isn’t the first ridiculous character to run for president—Al Sharpton ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004—nor the first openly bigoted candidate—George Wallace ran for president three times. But Trump is the first ridiculous, openly bigoted candidate who stands a very good chance to win a major party’s nomination.
How did this happen? This was supposed to be the cycle with a great field of Republican candidates, experienced governors, two Cuban-American senators, a world famous African-American brain surgeon, a superstar female business leader. And yes, a reality television star billionaire who lived on Fifth Avenue and claimed to speak for the working men and women of America. The Democrats were mired in the past with two refugees from the 1960s, one an obscure democratic socialist from a tiny state who speaks fondly of a top marginal tax rate of 90 percent.With only 23 percent of voters believing the country was headed in the right direction, this election was to be a glorious march to a sweeping Republican victory. It all looked so easy, so sure.
But here we are in March and the leading Republican candidate is not only blasting Mexicans as “rapists,” researching the KKK, and treating the Constitution like it was an item on a menu you might or might not order depending on your mood; he is getting crushed by the socialist Larry David look-alike. You have to work at that.
Of course this sort of crazy confluence of events and unintended consequences has indeed happened before, and Barbara Tuchman described it beautifully in her classic Guns of August. The 1962 Pulitzer Prize winner describes how the civilized world blundered into World War I, that most savage of wars that no one seemed to have wanted and everyone was powerless to stop. In what was hailed as a moment of great renewal, a new century of golden opportunity quickly degenerated into the slaughterhouse of the Somme. That same toxic blend of miscalculation, greed, and arrogance that led to that war have all played out in the Republican primary.
It’s everyone’s fault and no one’s fault. There were some who welcomed Trump onto the presidential scene, confident that he could help scold an out-of-touch establishment slow to grasp the problems of a troubled America. In a July 2015 Politico piece, National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote that Trump had hit “on an important truth that typical politicians either don’t know or simply fear to speak. “When Mexico sends its people,” Trump said, “they’re not sending their best.” That’s obviously true,” wrote Lowry, who compared him to “Herman Cain squared—an early-nominating-season phenomenon with a massive media megaphone.”
By January, Lowry’s magazine was dedicating an entire issue to the urgency of stopping the threat of Trump, who “would destroy the conservative movement.” And I was just as wrong, if not more so. I wrote that facing a loss in Iowa, Trump’s ego would tilt him toward leaving the stage before being proven a loser. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
For various reasons, the Republican candidates have enabled Trump’s rise, slow to launch a concerted attack, largely giving him a clear path. Each candidate seemed more obsessed with this currently popular but insane notion of winning a “lane” rather than winning a race, while Trump was focused on winning a race. The civilized world raised a vast army and entrusted it to Jeb Bush’s Super PAC, Right to Rise. Instead of fighting the barbarians, it decided to fight other elements of the civilized word. Advantage, Barbarians.
So here we are. It takes 1,237 delegates to secure the Republican nomination. There seems little chance that any candidate other than Trump has a realistic shot at hitting that number before the convention. Logic dictates that the remaining candidates should focus on holding Trump as far below 1,237 as possible, with the goal of pushing the convention to a second ballot. While some speculate a second ballot might be a scenario for a new candidate like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan to enter the race, that strikes me as unlikely. The far more plausible outcome would find two candidates joining together to form a ticket, pooling delegates to get over 1,237.
There are many—including, strangely, Ted Cruz—who attack this convention possibility as being one that would thwart “the will of the people,” to use a phrase that seems popular. This is utter nonsense. There are rules for securing the nomination, and as long as the rules are adhered to, the game has been played fairly. In 1976, the great conservative Ronald Reagan took his fight to the convention and came within one delegation (Mississippi’s) of defeating a sitting Republican president, Jerry Ford. Surely if a convention strategy is good enough to challenge a Republican president, it’s good enough to challenge a major Clinton donor like Donald Trump.
As the process moves into a slate of winner-take-all states, the key to the convention strategy—call it the Reagan Strategy, not the brokered-convention strategy—is for Rubio and Kasich to win their home states. But in what strikes me as a bizarre move, Ted Cruz is moving resources to Florida and attacking Marco Rubio on the air. Why? Does Cruz think he can win Florida? It seems the longest of shots. Much more likely is that he helps hand the state to Donald Trump. That will all but finish any chance Cruz has of becoming the Republican nominee.
So the madness and miscalculation apparently continues. The Republican Party is lurching toward the Somme, where death and destruction will replace hopes for a November victory. Dig your trench. Get your gas mask. The boys aren’t going to be home by Christmas.