When I first heard Donald Trump on the campaign trail, I thought, “What a joke!”
When I last heard Donald Trump on the campaign trail, I thought, “How long will it take for my children to learn Icelandic?”
I underestimated Donald Trump once. I’ll never do it again.
Don’t think Democrats regaining the House has any bearing on the 2020 presidential run, which horrifyingly is beginning right about now. Campaign-trail reporters like myself (at least, those of us who don’t do the smart thing and off ourselves before the race starts) would do well to remember the mistake we made in 2015-2016.
Last time, Beltway prognosticators kept selling reporters on lines such as, “The math is impossible, he can’t win” — and our generational, WMD-level error was in buying it, instead of trusting what we were seeing on the campaign trail. Our most respected data journalists told us at the outset that Trump had a better chance of playing in the NBA than winning the nomination.
In a media business geared toward reassuring demographics, audiences during the Trump presidency have been deluged with stories about his vulnerabilities, leaving the impression that his disastrous presidency has fatally wounded him as a politician. We’ve been treated to a succession of wish-fulfillment exercises disguised as news features — a stream of “last days of the Trump administration” pieces reappearing across two years of scandals. These have created the expectation that not only will Trump not be re-elected, he may be dragged out of the White House at any moment. But such cheery stories run counter to reality. By any rational standard, Trump in the past two years has made huge political gains.
Trump began his 2016 run as a sideshow conspiracist, a human rimshot the papers turned to for comic relief. Today, he commands the electorate within his own party. He regularly pulls between 85 and 90 percent of Republican support — he was right at 90 percent just before the midterms — which is where George W. Bush was heading into the 2004 race. Retaining above 85 percent of your own party’s voters is a characteristic shared by the past four incumbents to win re-election: Obama, Bush, Clinton and Reagan. Trump probably has 60 million or so Republican votes in his pocket. Worse, he can use the vast powers of the presidency to polish the turd of his re-election argument. If an Access Hollywood tape or six pops up, Trump can just bomb Reunion Island to change the subject.
Trump’s base doesn’t care that he has betrayed most all of his key campaign promises. They won’t see it that way. He pledged to “drain the swamp” and savaged Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton for being tools of Goldman Sachs, then packed his White House with Goldmanites minutes after election. His tax cut is a grotesque handout to the plutocrat class to which he claimed to be a traitor. And if there’s a person out there who’s sick of all the winning, even Fox News hasn’t found him yet.
But Trump has actually tried to do lots of the insane things he promised he would. That he’s made a cock-up of these efforts will be irrelevant. He promised a monstrous Muslim Ban and got it. He pulled out of the Paris Agreement, striking a blow on behalf of the tens of millions of Americans who vehemently oppose both science and France. Then there are his steel tariffs, the policy equivalent of stumbling out of a bar after 14 shots of Jägermeister and reaching for your car keys. Will they accomplish anything except chaos? Hell, no. But chaos is what Trump voters asked for.
The press has steadfastly refused to understand this aspect of Trump’s pitch. The subtext of his run wasn’t about making America great again. It was, Let’s fuck shit up. If Obama voters understood “change” as a genuine call to idealism, Trump voters understood it as a chair through a plate-glass window, the start of a riot.
In a time of extreme cynicism and existential gloom, Trump is a doomsday cult, giving voters permission to unleash their inner monster. What makes this dangerous is that the appeal isn’t limited to racists. It extends to anyone who’s pissed off about anything. Trump is the match to burn it all down.
While candidate Trump’s 2015-2016 act was almost 100 percent paranoia (a typical news cycle involved Trump claiming that the press essentially went back in time, just to spite him, and hid evidence of Muslims mass-celebrating 9/11) current-day Trump has a team of real federal investigators crawling up his hind-pipe, sneering journos cheering them on, and a new Democratic House promising reams of investigations, perhaps even impeachment. He will use this to make an argument about an unprecedented conspiracy of elites to remove him from office. Uncharacteristically for him, this won’t even be complete bullshit, adding fuel to his wreck-the-system message.
Trump hasn’t delivered on his border-wall promise, but it’s leaked out that he’s proposed a Trans-Saharan barrier to Spanish leaders, to keep Africans out! A Great Wall of Whiteness surrounding North America and Europe is classic Trump: objectively insane but rhetorically powerful.
The propensity for such diabolical ideas to regularly tumble out of Trump’s mental sphincter (while Democrats keep making lifeless appeals to concepts like “electability”) is a huge reason not to discount even the wounded version of him that we’ve seen since his election. Modern elections are more about narrative than fact, and Trump remains a ratings bonanza whose instinct for seizing the lowest common denominator has, if anything, expanded in office, even as he’s seemed to deteriorate mentally.
Trump’s win was a million-to-one shot. He was walloped in the popular vote and won key Rust Belt states by paper-thin margins. Some of the midterm results look like those particular electoral votes are headed back to the blue column. But he was aided last time by delusions of the pundit class, which kept confusing their objective impressions of Trump with actual electoral weakness.
We should have learned the opposite. The more of a joke he looks to Democrats and the press, the better he’s probably doing with his target voters, and God help us if we forget that a second time.