Thoughts on two strongmen:
Donald Trump has entered his second act. His polls, sometimes characterized as weakening, are in fact strong. As Bloomberg’s John Heilemann said on “Morning Joe,” if Jeb Bush had Mr. Trump’s numbers everyone would declare the race over.
This week Quinnipiac had Mr. Trump solidly leading his GOP rivals in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. A national poll from Reuters/Ipsos had Mr. Trump in the lead with 31%, followed by Ben Carson with 17%. Public Policy Polling had Mr. Trump holding steady nationwide since late August, coming in first at 27%. His support is ideologically broad—35% of tea-party voters and 29% of moderates, according to PPP. He did better among younger voters and among men (31%) than women (23%). Clever people once said of George H.W. Bush that he reminded women of their first husbands. I never thought so, but Mr. Trump would remind some women of a blustery first husband, or a loudmouth uncle holding forth at Thanksgiving while hogging the sweet potatoes.
He continues with high negatives. But for all the dopey, damaging dramas he’s gotten himself into the past few months he’s maintained his position. Imagine if he’d been disciplined.
The first act was “I’m Here and I’m Yuge.” Now Act II: “I Mean It and I’m Staying.” He has unveiled a tax plan and come forward as a family man with a seven-page spread in People. He’s emerged as a noninterventionist on the Mideast—“Russia wants to get rid of ISIS. We want to get rid of ISIS. . . . Let them get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?” He apparently has decided to stop certain media wars.
To me the virtue of his tax plan is that I can understand it. A friend said, “It’s a total rip-off of Jeb’s plan!” It probably is. But Trump explained Trump’s plan, so people paid attention, and Jeb explained Jeb’s, so they didn’t. Mr. Trump’s economic policies seem to come from indignation—the poor need a break, the rich have a racket. Jeb’s seem to come from a desire for good government. In the current climate indignation beats good government every time.
More than any candidate Mr. Trump has to hold on to what he has and grow out—steadily—from there. Everyone has to do that, but he most of all because he has to prove every day that he’s not a passing aberration, a wigged-out expression of voter rage.
Here is a mystery question. Mr. Trump has been the Republican front-runner for three months. The first voting, in Iowa, is in just more than three and a half months. If Mr. Trump does well in the early contests—if he retains his lead and it starts to look like he can really win the nomination—then at some point it will come down, sharply, to him versus the party establishment. And that establishment, such as it is, will presumably try to kill him. The question: What will that look like? We’ve never seen that before. What will it be to have a party establishment try to kill the guy who’s No. 1 in that party’s polls? Maybe they think they’ll have golden oppo, but opposition research doesn’t really work on Mr. Trump, mostly because no one has illusions of probity about him. His supporters don’t think he’s a sweet, sinless businessman. They love it that he’s not.
The wisdom now, and it’s not stupid, is that as time passes the field will narrow. More candidates will drop out, voters will begin to coalesce behind other front-runners, and suddenly one of them will be polling at 27% or 32%. Various powers will throw their weight behind front-runner No. 2 or 3 or 4. But this year has reminded us to expect the unexpected. Maybe not enough candidates will drop out to make a difference. Maybe the splintered field stays splintered. How then do you stop Mr. Trump? Maybe—again—only Trump stops Trump.
The second strongman is Vladimir Putin of Russia, who made a striking impression in a revealing 100-minute interview with Charlie Rose. It took place last month in Mr. Putin’s residence near Moscow, and ran Sept. 27 on “60 Minutes” and in its entirety on Mr. Rose’s PBS show. I speak frequently to those who know or have met Mr. Putin, and the Rose interview captured the individual the most insightful of them have described. Mr. Putin was confident in his command of information, clever, at times droll, sometimes insistent.
He posited himself as a friend of world stability. Russia is in Syria to keep it from becoming what Libya is, a nation in which “all the state institutions are disintegrated.” The Syrian government of Bashar Assad has “the one legitimate conventional army,” and “I want you and your audience to finally realize that no one except for the Assad army is fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups now in Syria.” U.S. efforts have been wanting: “It has to be said frankly this is a very low level of effectiveness. I’m not trying to be sarcastic here. I’m not trying to call someone out or to point fingers.”
Mr. Rose asked if Mr. Putin saw ISIS as a unique terrorist organization. “Well yes, it’s turned into a unique organization because it has become global. Indeed they have the aim to build a caliphate from Portugal to Pakistan.” They are not the jayvee team.
Is he exploiting a vacuum in American leadership? No, said Mr. Putin, he’s trying to prevent a vacuum where the government of Syria should be. “As soon as government agencies are destroyed in a given state . . . that’s when a power vacuum occurs. And at that moment it will be instantly filled by terrorists.”
Is Mr. Putin driven by a desire to have Russia play a bigger role in the world? “I’m proud of Russia, that’s true,” he said, but such pride is not an end in itself. Then an oblique slap at the U.S.: “But we don’t have any obsession with being a superpower in the international arena. We’re involved in only one thing, defending our fundamental interest.”
Mr. Rose, noting Mr. Putin had been in the KGB, said, “Someone in Russia told me there is no such thing as a former KGB man.”
“You know, not a single stage of our lives passes without a trace,” said Mr. Putin. “All this knowledge we acquire, all the experience, will always remain with us and we carry it further and will use it somewhere. Well, in a sense they are right.”
Asked what he thinks of President Obama, he deflected—coolly. “I don’t think I’m entitled to give any views regarding the president of the United States. . . . Our relations are businesslike. I believe that’s quite sufficient to comply with our functions.”
Do Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy actions “reflect a weakness”?
“I don’t think so at all,” said Mr. Putin. “I don’t think that’s the case and I don’t intend to get involved in a domestic American skirmish.”
One got the impression he wished it understood that he doesn’t outfox weaklings, he only beats champs. It was in its way Trumpesque.