It was clear from the very first question at the Republican Primary Debate on Thursday night that Donald Trump was going to win. When the candidates were asked as a group, in the very first question in the very first debate, whether they would swear to support the eventual nominee and promise not to run as independent, only Trump refused. Twitter pundits immediately labeled it a mistake, but once again they missed Trump’s savvy: On a stage with ten would-be Presidents, Trump raised his hand and bought himself extra time in the spotlight.
What’s surprising about Trump is not that he remains the front-runner after that debate; what’s surprising is how many pundits and analysts didn’t expect him to be. Long-time political experts are baffled by Trump, wrongly predicting his demise with each breaking mini-scandal; but they misunderstand Trump and his success, because they misunderstand Republican voters.
Trump’s second question was even more revealing. Challenged by Megyn Kelly about the demeaning way he treats women, Trump didn’t back down. He responded with a dig at old foe Rosie O’Donnell, and then unflinchingly defended his conduct. “The big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said . The audience laughed, and then cheered, and the camera cut back to Megyn Kelly’s bemused expression. That happened several times during the debate: A Trump answer, an audience cheer, and a shot of a moderator barely concealing their frustration.
The “politically correct” callout was the most brilliant of the evening. I could write thousands of words about ‘political correctness’ and how meaningless that term is, but instead I’ll link to some Paul Barman lyrics and move to my next point: My unscientific opinion is that so-called ‘political correctness’ may be the touchstone issue for Republican voters in 2015.
We hear it in all sorts of contexts: condemnations of the Confederate flag, prosecution of anti-gay bakers, and marches or protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. As the United States embraces a more socially progressive culture, many Republicans feel disenfranchised and threatened. They decry the liberal thought police and “social justice warriors” and resent that the status quo they take for granted (what some southerners might call their “heritage”) has become taboo. They complain that white people will “soon be a minority,” insist that gay marriage somehow violates their religious freedom, and talk a lot about “taking their country back.”
These are the people to whom Trump appeals, and in 2015 they have come to represent a critical mass of Republican voters–enough, at least, to give him a solid lead among likely primary voters. He doesn’t appeal to them with policy, but with personality. Trump is not a politician, he is a celebrity, and unlike the pundits, the politicians, and the moderators themselves, he knows that what he says is not nearly as important as how he says it. Huckabee and Cruz may talk about “taking the country back,” but they don’t interrupt the moderators the way Trump does. They don’t hold up a finger halfway through the question, like a teacher correcting an insubordinate student. They don’t toss off thinly veiled threats, or call others stupid, or brag about how successful they’ve been.
Politicians have always had to walk a fine line, trying to act strong and authoritative without seeming pompous or elite. Since the advent of television they’ve been coached by advisers on every detail of speech and body language, from hand gestures to length of pauses. In the 2000 election, Al Gore was widely considered to have lost a debate to George Bush because of the way he sighed.
But it’s not 2000 any more, it’s 2015, and voters seeking nuance and decorum have mostly left the Republican party. Those who stayed have been conditioned by Fox News and right-wing radio, and they don’t want decorum. They want an unapologetic, authoritative demagogue who will stand against “political correctness” and defend the right of rich white men everywhere to say what they want, when they want, how they want.
If Ted Cruz is a beer, Donald Trump is a shot of whiskey. He is a distillation of the rhetorical techniques and tactics that have made Cruz a Tea Party darling. Cruz is a big figure in national politics. So is Chris Christie. Mike Huckabee is a cable television host. These are men who are used to commanding a room, and on stage with Donald Trump they all seemed about eight inches tall. Trump may know nothing about politics, but he knows about television and he knows about self-promotion. He’s spent his adult life being criticized for tasteless self-promotion, but it’s never stopped him. Thursday night, Trump clocked a little over 11 minutes of speaking time; more than double what Rand Paul got.
The good news, of course, is that Trump is a disaster as a candidate and stands no chance at winning in the general election. While pundits are wrong about the things that will bring Trump down, they’re right to believe he will eventually collapse. Not only does he have no experience with policy, he seems to have no interest in it. Eventually he will run out of hot air and come down to land, but it may not be for a while.
If I were the Democrats, I’d want him in the race as long as possible; not only because he’s an embarrassment to his party, but because the longer he stays ahead, the more he comes to symbolize his party. The Republican party is long on moderate-to-progressive voters who consider themselves Republican because of a handful of issues. The more they see their fellow Republicans supporting Trump, the more likely they are to question that allegiance. I’m not suggesting Trump will marginalize the GOP, but whittling down little by little may have significant effect if it goes on long enough. Right now, the only group of Republicans larger than those who support Trump are those who say they would never vote for him under any circumstance.
Fox News clearly knows this, which is why the moderators at Thursday’s debate tried so hard to smear Trump, reminding the audience with almost every question that he had previously espoused Democratic views, and donated to Democratic candidates (including the Clintons!) Their aggressive tactics backfired, however, because they are exactly what Trump needs to advance his brand–standing unapologetic against his critics.
After the debate, Trump made an offensive and sexist comment about Megyn Kelly, and once again the pundits said this was the end, that surely no candidate could survive such a statement. Once again they were wrong, and once again Trump rose in the polls–because the pundits don’t understand that what Republican voters want right now is not a courteous statesman, but a demagogue who will stand against liberal oppression. That’s a part Trump is happy to play, and the more he plays it, the more his lead will solidify.