Sorry, But I Still Don’t Know How Donald Trump Managed to Win

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Jon Chait says there’s a simple reason that Donald Trump defied expectations to win the Republican nomination: “The Republican Party turns out to be filled with idiots. Far more of them than anybody expected.” Atrios says Chait is blind: “We hippie liberals have been telling you for years that a sizeable chunk of Republican voters are absolute blithering idiots.”

Hmmm. I have to say, I’ve been reading Chait for years, and he’s never held back his contempt for Republicans or Republican voters. Whatever his faults, having too rose-tinted a view of the GOP hasn’t been one of them.

In any case, I think they’re both missing the point. Whenever you look at anything even vaguely related to public policy,1 the key question is “Compared to what?” Whatever you think of the Republican electorate, they made it through 2008 without nominating Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson. Then they made it through 2012 without nominating Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann. Instead they nominated two very normal party warhorses, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

So what happened? Did the GOP electorate suddenly lose a couple dozen collective IQ points over the past four years? I suppose anything’s possible, but it doesn’t seem likely. Something other than the idiocy of the Republican base was at work here.

But what? Sometimes I feel like I’m the last person in America who still isn’t quite sure how Trump managed to win. Seriously, America, WTF? But at a guess, the key factors were these:

  • A large and weak field. The traditional mainstream candidates—in particular Scott Walker and Jeb Bush—turned out to be stunningly bad campaigners. The best of the remainder were Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Rubio was pretty obviously too young and too out of his depth, while Cruz was just really, really unlikeable.
  • Trump is sui generis.2 Republicans have survived their Palins and Cains and Carsons, but Trump is just better at being a demagogue than any of them. He’s the perfect TV candidate in a TV era.
  • Simple bigotry. The GOP has long had a significant base that’s susceptible to racial appeals, but ever since Pat Buchanan’s suicide run in 1992 everyone assumed this would henceforth have to be kept carefully buried by anyone who wanted to be taken seriously. Trump surprised everyone by unburying it with no apologies. And guess what? It turned out nothing much had changed over the past two decades. Buchanan won about 30 percent of the vote in the early contests of the 1992 race, almost exactly the same as Trump got in the early contests this year. Against a single strong competitor, this wasn’t enough for Buchanan, but against a fractured field, Trump’s frank appeal to the racist vote was enough to keep him in the lead.

Can a richer, shrewder, less ethnic, less Catholic version of Pat Buchanan win the presidency? I don’t think so, but at this point, frankly, I’m afraid to venture an opinion.

1And if there’s anyone vaguely related to public policy, it’s Donald Trump.

2Admittedly, this is just a fancy way of saying: ¯\_(?)_/¯

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