Several days ago, perennial presidential candidate Mike Huckabee charged that President Obama was ready to lead Israeli Jews “to the ovens.” A few days later, he said he might use not only the FBI but even the US military to prevent abortions. And around the same time, Ted Cruz called Obama the world’s biggest funder of Islamic terrorism. There was a day when cracks like these would have stopped the political world in its tracks, spurring transgressive glee from supporters and outrage from liberals and normal people. But this summer, they’ve struggled to break through. And the reason is obvious: Donald Trump has flooded the market with a new, purer brand of Crazy that has left the other candidates scrambling and basically unable to compete.
Trump is now in the lead in virtually every national poll of the Republican primary race. It’s easy to overstate what that means since, in such a populous field, he can do that handily with something like a mere 20% support. But it’s worth stepping back to see how we got here. Because Trump is in many ways the logical end result of seven years – really two-plus decades – of Republican cultivation of anger and grievance as a method of conducting politics.This is what brought us the 2010 and 2014 election triumphs on the one hand, but also government shut-downs, debt crises based on nothing, and more.
In a crowded field, for almost everyone but Bush, it’s critical to grab hold of the mantle of anger and grievance. But the Huckabees and Cruzes simply cannot compete with Trump, who is not only willing to say truly anything but also has – whatever else you can say about his nonsense – a talent for drama and garnering press attention honed over decades. With a mix of aggression, boffo self-assertion and nonsense, Trump has managed to boil modern Republicanism down to a hard precipitate form, shorn of the final vestiges of interest in actual governing.
In the economics of Crazy, there is purity and volume. Trump has brought to market a purer and more widely deployable product. He has also radically increased volume. Like a high-flying tech start-up or new drug syndicate, he has radically devalued the product, while dominating the transformed market in a way that allows him to make a killing even against reduced prices and margins. Many of us thought that the string of collapsed business deals and partnerships would hurt Trump. And they may have damaged his bottom line. But in the political realm they have only served to confirm his image as a no-nonsense (all nonsense?) truth-teller who is indifferent to how controversy may affect his personal fortunes. In both purity and volume, his competitors simply cannot compete.
Bush’s aides appear to think that Trump may actually be helping them in their fight with Scott Walker, drawing away lots of voters who would never have supported Bush and clustering them around a candidate who will never go all the way. That may be true. But the biggest loser is Ted Cruz. Cruz’s angle has been to be the one mainstream presidential contender who will take things just a little further than anyone else in the game. You’re for the 2nd Amendment? That’s great. But Ted is out there saying you need your guns ready in case you need to kill some federal officials who are endangering liberty. While the argument is well-know, few candidates for high office will quite go there. But Trumps do anything, say anything mode of militant nonsense has frozen Cruz out almost entirely. And his dipping poll numbers show it.
There is one additional point to keep in mind. It’s not just Trump’s willingness to say anything, or his flair for the dramatic. All of his Republican rivals are residents of the CPAC circuit, the annual archipelago of Republican confabs and conventions where top Republicans go to rail about and outdo each other on what is a fairly narrow range of top concerns: Obamacare, immigration, radical Islam and whatever else. Trump is clearly playing on that terrain, too. His entry into presidential quasi-politics in 2012 after all was with a massive embrace of birtherism. In 2016, Trump has focused his ire on illegal immigration. But in some very significant way he comes from outside the professional right-wing presidential, rubber-chicken circuit, bubble.
That novelty and lack of normal political constraints is what is allowing him to run circles around his competitors who had hoped to play in the Crazy space. Showmanship, lack of touch with reality, and a palpable handle on the grievance and unrestrained self-assertion that is at the center of modern Republican base politics have made Trump, for now, almost impossible to outdo in a crowded field.