Watching the 2016 race is like we're watching an outlandishly madcap absurdist film mocking the presidential process, something akin to Bulworth 2: Making America Great Again . It just doesn't seem real. Trump is a candidate more boorish, more buffoonish, more rude, vapid, and self-righteous than any who has ever sat atop the polls. As the Washington Post's Jon Capehart tweeted recently, "The 2012 Republican presidential field was derided as a clown car. The 2016 car is being driven by the clown."
But in a political era so concerned with rising inequality, perhaps Trump is what we deserve: a billionaire at the center of the presidential contest, spewing a wealthy man's privilege all over the place. He's like Thomas Piketty's nightmare, the embodiment of what happens when so much wealth is concentrated in one person for so long that he no longer has any need for decency, so his heart shrivels up like the Grinch's and all of the empty space in his body is filled with ego.
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Trump's appearance under the presidential microscope reveals him to be what New Yorkers have long known him to be: arrogant, obnoxious, full of himself, and lacking restraint or an adult's sense of avoiding needlessly hurting others. He's careened from denigrating Mexican immigrants to denigrating Senator John McCain's military service to denigrating Megyn Kelly's menstrual cycle, using his words to pee all over the race, like an alpha animal establishing its dominance.
Yet despite having the real freedom to say whatever he pleases, Trump hasn't got a serious thought in his head. It doesn't seem possible that he could be leading the Republican field. But it is real. Donald Trump is beating these guys. Despite uttering an election season's worth of disqualifying comments, Teflon Don remains high atop the polls, apparently immune to himself. An online NBC News/Survey Monkey poll conducted after the GOP debate found Trump at 23 percent, far ahead of his next closest competitor, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, at 13 percent. And 54 percent of those polled said they'd vote for Trump as an independent.
Now I don't know what exactly Trump supporters are rallying behind. Perhaps it's some combination of persona, bluster, wealth, plus a lack of filter, a rejection of government, a rejection of traditional politicking, and the supposedly angry id of the far right. But it's certainly not his positions on the issues—Trump has no serious policy positions. The man seems allergic to specifics. Does he really want to build a literal wall between the US and Mexico? Is that a serious idea? On the question of how to deal with ISIS, he's said when he's president, "They're gonna be in so much trouble." OK. How? Why? When? What?!?
But even as some in the pundit class begin wondering if maybe we should stop writing Trump's political obituary, those who prefer a dose of reality with their politics should feel free to continue to not take Trump seriously. We should absolutely continue writing Trump's political obit because the man continues to have no chance to win. As Nate Silver pointed out last week, Trump's high polling numbers are fueled in large part by his name recognition and media coverage: There's a near perfect correlation between the amount of media coverage a candidate gets and how they rank in the polls.
Silver also reminds us that national polling of a massive field of candidates is not the strongest indicator of how the race will turn out. After several candidates drop out, Trump's lead will likely shrink—his unfavorability rating is about 60 percent, far higher than that of anyone else in the race.
A Trump presidency would almost certainly be catastrophic for America. But there's still something a bit sad about the fact that a candidate who is so popular could have no actual shot to get his party's nomination. Because the real reason why Trump won't win is because the American people don't really choose their presidential nominees, any more than the audience in a figure skating contest chooses who wins.
So who actually decides? This is broken down in a fascinating 2008 book called The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform, written by four political science professors, led by Marty Cohen of James Madison University and David Karol of the University of Maryland. The book debunks the notion that the presidential nomination process is some Hollywood romance, where a Richard Gere–style candidate magically seduces his party's voters, who are the Julia Roberts of this scenario. In reality, it is the Party Elites who choose the presidential nominee, shaping the menu in a way that leads the rank-and-file to vote for their selection. You don't think that Washington elites and the cream of the donor classes reached their lofty status only to leave it to the masses to make the most important decision a party can make—choosing their presidential nominee?
According to The Party Decides, the clearest way that elites influence and effectively control nominations is through endorsements which the authors argue are probably the most significant factor in determining who will win presidential primaries. The authors examined which candidates were endorsed by sitting governors in presidential nominating contests between 1976 and 2004, and found that in all but one race, the man who got the highest percentage of gubernatorial endorsements before the Iowa caucuses won the nomination.
"In the past quarter century," the authors write, "the Democratic and Republican parties have always influenced and often controlled the choice of their presidential nominees." Later, they liken this environment to Olympic figure skating:
The skaters are at the center of everyone's attention as they glide and leap and occasionally crash across the ice. To judge by the television accounts... the competition is dominated by the skaters. Yet the skaters do not determine the number and kinds of jumps and spins they must perform. Nor do they determine the standards of performance. Nor, above all, do they choose the judges, who are selected by the larger figure skating community to implement the community's rules of competition and standards of judgment. Skaters win not by pleasing themselves or their coaches or even the crowd in the arena, but by pleasing the judges and the insider community they represent.
Americans are told that their country is a democracy—in reality, though, what the United States has is, at best, a weak democracy, in which the establishment elite exercise an outsize amount of power, while the masses are made to think they have a large say. And in a game controlled by political elites who care deeply about electability, Trump has no chance.
So for once in Trump's long, luck-filled life, the game is rigged against him. Because Trump, unlike most of his Republican rivals, has not spent years winning the loyalty of political elites, in an arena where that's essential. The irony, of course, is that Trump has more in common with the elites who will lie down on the tracks to stop his candidacy than with the voters who profess to love him. If this is a game, Trump is not supposed to be on the field—he's supposed to be in the owners' box, deciding who gets to play. National politics is like smashmouth football, and Trump was not built to be a player. There's a reason why you never see the owners on the gridiron.
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