Gadfly extraordinaire Ann Coulter lost no time after the attacks in Paris, tweeting in the immediate aftermath: “They can wait if they like until next November for the actual balloting, but Donald Trump was elected president tonight.”
Democrats and especially Hillary Clinton should take note. Trump may not, in fact, win the 2016 presidential election, but the odds of him being the Republican nominee continue to grow. And if he is the nominee, he won’t be a pushover.
Trump is the candidate that, Rodney Dangerfield-like, never gets respect. Political observers (me included) first viewed him as a crackpot, seeing his rise in the polls as a kind of déjà vu from 2011 and 2012. Back then, if you remember, Mitt Romney was the presumptive favorite. Yet for weeks on end, one or another untenable candidates would pop to the top: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Herman Cain. This time around, it appeared, Jeb Bush (or some other more mainstream candidate) was Mitt Romney. Voters would flirt, but eventually they’d settle down.
Meanwhile, establishment — and even some non-establishment — Republicans couldn’t believe that primary voters were latching on to the real estate mogul. It wasn’t clear, for one, that he really was a Republican. He was a Democrat back in 2001, only switching to the GOP in 2009 — and during the years, he’s donated to a variety of candidates, seemingly without regard to party affiliation. Then too, his positions were wildly out of keeping with much GOP orthodoxy: He favored tax increases on the wealthy and he wasn’t particularly disapproving of abortion. Moreover, he was rude and aggressive, violating the Party’s supposed 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump derided Sen. John McCain’s war hero status, ridiculed Bush as “low energy,” called Carly Fiorina ugly (“look at that face!”) and said Ben Carson was little different than a child molester.
At the same time, Democrats were thrilled. Wacky Republicans such as Trump, they figured, just drove voters their way. On top of that, Trump was alienating key demographic groups, most notably Hispanics with his harsh rhetoric on immigration and description of Mexican arrivals as “rapists.” And indeed, the numbers seem to bear that out. For instance, one recent poll found only 11 percent of Hispanics viewing Trump favorably.
All of that may be true. Yet it’s time to acknowledge that Trump isn’t going away easily.
Unlike the merry-go-round of four years ago, when candidates rose and fell in voters’ favor on an almost weekly basis, Trump has been atop the national polls since mid-July — a full four months. He’s no longer a flash in the pan. Nor is there some magic wand that GOP insiders can wave to make him depart the scene; smoke-filled rooms are a relic. As Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom observes, “in a campaign nothing happens by accident. It has to be made to happen.” If Trump is to be pushed out, someone has to be around to do it. And none of the field, right now, seems to have that ability.
So what happens if Trump really does get the nomination and goes face-to-face with (presumably) Hillary Clinton?
Some Democrats might relish the prospect. Trump is a clown, they reckon, unthinkable as a national leader. Democrats, of course, would never support him. Centrists would recoil at his demagoguery. And Hispanics — 27 percent of whom voted Republican in 2012 — would flee the GOP, becoming perhaps as certain a Democratic vote as are African Americans. Hillary could win in a landslide, a lopsided result akin to Johnson versus Goldwater in 1964.
Don’t be so certain. National polls currently show Clinton beating Trump in a head-to-head contest, but only by an average of less than 5 points. Moreover, it’s not national results that matter; presidential elections are decided by swing states that might go either way, including Florida, Virginia, Iowa and Pennsylvania. All of these are fertile ground for Trump’s blend of outrage, populism and revolt against the establishment — as well as his uncanny ability to identify the Zeitgeist of the moment (such as Paris) and make them his own. Add to that Clinton’s own failings — nearly 50 percent view her unfavorably — and you get the makings of a real contest.
President Donald Trump? The unthinkable becomes quite thinkable indeed.
This column was first published in Cognoscenti on November 23, 2015.