This article originally appeared August 20, 2015: during the early presidential primary debates and well before state caucuses and elections began in 2016. Its observations are interesting in light of where we stand now, about a month before the party conventions.
“For all of the troubles that Hillary Clinton has experienced recently, here’s the stark reality: The three men widely considered to be the Republican frontrunners — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker — are having an even rougher time.” ~ NBC’s First Read
I love that phrase ‘widely considered’. Who considered these three gentleman front-runners? The media! Reporters sit around handicapping the candidates, placing their bets, doing their horse-race thing. That’s the story. They look at polls that don’t mean anything, they think about who they like, and they say, ‘I think he’s a front-runner!’ How about that? ‘Widely considered’ essentially means the reporters are polling themselves!
Moreover, the consensus forms quickly enough. No reporter wants to look like a weirdo. If Bush, Rubio, and Walker emerge as front-runners early in the race, it’s only because reporters’ bets coalesce around these three. Now we have our front-runners. Now we have a story. We can report whether the front-runners are doing well, or not. Then here comes The Donald. One and all, the reporters disparaged him. They say, ‘This guy’s a blowhard and a joke. Why is he even in the race?’ He’s like the fat, short-legged pony who wants to run with the thoroughbreds.
Then the fat one pulls so far ahead in the polls that the reporters have to say, ‘Whoa, man. Slow that guy down! He’s making us look foolish.’ The fat horse pulls still further out in front. Now the reporters say, ‘Oh my gosh. May I should switch my bet. He might actually win.’ Note that all of this goes on with polls that aren’t such a good indicator of how Republicans will vote in the 2016 primaries. Reporters point that out: ‘The polls are still early,’ they say. That didn’t stop them from placing their early bets based on winter and spring polls that meant a lot less than the summer polls.
Reading election coverage is one of the most self-referential exercises you can imagine. Reporters don’t report on the candidates – they report on themselves. The stories report what they think. Of course they pretend to report on what candidates think, but candidates aren’t sure what they think yet. They’re still out there greeting people, giving stump speeches, shaking hands, raising money, travelling, meeting with their staff, planning what to do next. They don’t have time to think. They’re mainly interested to find out if people like them.
The reporters think, ‘Our readers want to know about the presidential race.’ They don’t have that much to report, though, so they start to divide the candidates into front-runners, middle-of-the-pack, and back-of-the-field. Everyone wonders if we’ll have a dark horse, or if the favorite will win after all. We are not talking about a one-mile race, either. If you figure each week equals about a mile, we have fifty miles until the national convention, roughly forty until reporters have tallied up delegates’ votes.
Meanwhile, Trump confounds all the early bets. Reporters expect him to implode or falter, but they don’t know when. People who have watched the Republican Party for a long time think that no matter how many votes Trump wins, long-time party leaders won’t allow him to win the nomination. People already wonder what dirty tricks Rove and company have up their sleeve to do Trump in. If the party could destroy Dan Rather over reporting on W.’s national guard service, it can certainly destroy The Donald, right? We’ll have to see who’s smarter these days, Donald or Karl. One difference is that Dan Rather didn’t have decades of anger to back him up when his boss fired him.
The anger that Donald has in his jet pack can propel him pretty far. The standard dirty tricks may not work in his case. So the party leaders who want to block him may have to figure some other way. They’re not going to try assassination. That’s the ultimate dirty trick, and no one wants to assassinate a blowhard. You look pretty low when you shoot the fat pony, and it’s truly hard to hide what you’ve done. The 1960s tell us how hard it is to hide the truth about political assassinations. Do you think the idea of assassinating a populist candidate sounds pretty outlandish? Donald Trump does not want to follow Huey Long.
So the GOP has to find some original way to can him, if Donald doesn’t go down on his own. Can Republicans convince primary voters that Trump isn’t their guy? Will Trump say something so insulting that people will become fed up? That’s hard to know, but I can tell you that Sanders’ popularity on the Democratic side gives you an idea why Trump is so popular. The explosion of support for both candidates comes from populist anger, not the ability to deliver insults. The style of these two politicians could not differ more, but they draw from the same pool of anger, alienation, disrespect for mainstream political leaders and their enablers, and disprespect for government itself.
Voters don’t care whether candidates can formulate good policies. They don’t care what kind of record they might have as governor or senator. They don’t even care that much about the quality of candidates’ thinking. They do want someone who expresses their contempt for politics as usual. They are really fed up. They see nothing but cowardice, dishonesty, corruption, criminality, incompetence and self-serving in the current way of conducting the public’s business. They know their tax money supports corruption by people who laugh at them and think they are stupid. They have felt that way for a long time.
The reasoning could not be more simple: find some way to make my tax money support politics that is less corrupt. If Trump or Sanders says, ‘I’ll fix things – let’s take our country back,” they’ll find support. Voters don’t hear contempt and anger from other candidates. They hear more of the same careful, measured statements reporters expect from presidential candidates. Do Bush and Walker have solid records as state governors? Does Rubio represent a key swing state in the Senate? Does that matter in the current environment? Reporters have their handicap sheets out, they’re talking to each other to see who is ‘widely considered,’ but they don’t see what’s happening around them.
First Read: A Rough Summer for Onetime GOP Frontrunners