There are not two presidential primary contests going on but three: “More Obama,” “Less Obama,” and “Trump.”
Something big is going on among the “More Obama” people: It is getting impossible to believe their race will remain confined to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Both will be as similar as they need to be in terms of policy and approach. Their real contest is over trustworthiness, integrity, heart. In 2008 I wrote in this space that Barack Obama may lie to you and John McCain may, but Hillary will. I quoted William Greider, who observed in the venerable left-liberal magazine the Nation that the Clintons are “high-minded” on the surface but “smarmily duplicitous underneath.”
That perception has always been alive on the left—it’s what took down the Clinton machine in ’08—and is newly alive now. Mr. Sanders just pulled ahead in New Hampshire for the first time, 44% to 37%, according to a Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll. He is speaking to massive crowds. Monday night in Los Angeles he pulled 27,500 people—roughly five times as large as any crowd Mrs. Clinton has drawn this cycle, according to the Washington Post. He was introduced by comedian Sarah Silverman, an antic rallying force for Obama in ’08. She told the crowd: “Bernie always seems to be on the right side of history.” Meanwhile Mrs. Clinton’s staffers send memos to supporters telling them to keep calm and repeat certain talking points.
There is no joy or brio, no wild, glass-breaking energy, in this endeavor. It is taking on the stale air of the bunker. When you mention to Democrats that Nixon never burned the tapes but Hillary surely burned that server, they nod, smile or half-wince. No one grows defensive for her. It does not seem possible that more candidates, big ones, won’t get in.
U.S. real-estate magnate Donald Trump is seen playing golf on a billboard at the Trump International Golf Club Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. ENLARGE
U.S. real-estate magnate Donald Trump is seen playing golf on a billboard at the Trump International Golf Club Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Karim Sahib/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
“Less Obama” is the Republicans, who’ll overturn this and roll back that. It is a deep field, the most impressive since 1980—accomplished big-state governors, senators, others. They operate under the normal rules of political comportment. Many are talking about serious issues but they are still and for the immediate future overshadowed by “Trump.”
I have said that his great power, the source of his confidence, is that he has nothing to lose. If he doesn’t become president, he’s still Donald Trump, only more famous, more everything. I was sharply corrected this week by a New Yorker who has done business with Mr. Trump. “You don’t get it,” he said. He raised a knife and moved his finger along the blade: “He is walking the edge of the knife, and if he gets to the end he is president. He can lose the presidency. He does have something to lose.” Mr. Trump is serious and doing his best under the belief he can win, the businessman said. (No, he is not a Trump supporter.)
Others have written of Mr. Trump’s appeal, as have I. When citizens are consistently offended by Washington, by both parties’ leadership, they become contemptuous. They see Mr. Trump’s contempt and identify. What the American establishment has given us the past 20 years is sex scandals, money scandals, two unwon wars, an economic collapse, an inadequate recovery, and borders we no longer even pretend to control. They think: What will you give us next, the plague?
In circumstances like this a swaggering, charismatic rich man who shares and speaks the public’s indignation—and shows a bit of its raucousness and humor, too—will find fertile soil. Especially if he’s famous in a country that worships fame, successful in a nation that honors success, and rough around the edges, like an American. When his critics say he’s a freak show you know his supporters are thinking: “The world’s a freak show, Putin’s a freak show, he’ll fit in.” Nothing has captured this like a brilliant Washington Free Beacon satire of how President Trump would react on Twitter to an Iranian decision, in 2017, to kick out inspectors and test missiles:
“Very disappointed in @khamenei_ir, a liar and disrespectful man. Trump is his worst nightmare.” Soon after: “I will be on @oreilly factor tonight on @FoxNews.” Deeper into the crisis: “Have you seen @khamenei_ir’s wife? Neither have I, he is a pig who makes her dress like a ninja.” He instructs the ayatollah to check his direct messages. He tweets: “America will not bow to degenerate slob like @khamenei_ir, beard like low class tramp full of greasy rice every time we Skype!” He tweets a new poll showing his approval rating at an all-time high. He sends Khameini a taunting Toby Keith lyric: “And the eagle will fly / Man, it’s gonna be hell / When you hear Mother Freedom / Start ringin’ her bell.”
Vice President Bruce Jenner calmly tweets: “Iranian nuclear test is a threat to world peace and our allies in the region. America will respond.” Mr. Trump: “@khamenei_ir called me after my landslide election and begged for money. Tehran is an ugly city I’ll never build a hotel there.” The Associated Press sends breaking news: The Supreme Leader of Iran has issued an apology and agreed to disarm. Mr. Trump notes he’ll be on CNN with Don Lemon. His final tweet: “The Ayatollah is a pathetic negotiator and his English is very bad. Guess he didn’t go to Wharton. No match for Trump.”
I thought of a Trump supporter I know. If she read it she’d cheer.
Should he be thrown from the party, ejected by its elders, whoever they are? After all he’s not really a Republican, his views are heterodox, he won’t vow to support the party nominee in 2016, he’s only a celebrity. But the party elites don’t have the power they once had. They’ve been undone by a generation of bad leadership. They’re afraid: A monster just came out of a swamp and is lurching their way. Journalistic elites have damned Mr. Trump, to no effect except incendiary comment threads. Once they were the cops on the ideological beat; they ran that into the ground during the Bush years, using too many nightsticks.
The harder people come down on Trump, the more his supporters believe he’s the only honest one. “Entwined, entrenched interests hate him: Then I’m for him!”
Republican leaders will be patient because there’s no other choice. They can’t take him down, and even if they could they’d be damned by his embittered supporters, and Trump would run third-party. He will rise or fall depending on how he acts and speaks, what oppo comes his way, and how he responds. He has a history of falling off the edge of the knife. He will change tack or get out depending on whether he comes to believe he is hurting his brand. Republicans should argue with him on policy, take on his positions, hit him hard, often and above the belt.
I don’t know what happens with Mr. Trump, but Trumpism? That’s here now—outlandish candidates backed by indignant, enraptured people who’ve lost their judgment. Congratulations to the leaders of both parties: The past 20 years you’ve taken us far. We’re entering Weimar, baby. The swamp figure is up from the depths.