Trump was lucky

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Bradley R. Gitz Free­lance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, re­ceived his Ph.D. in political sci­ence from the Univer­sity of Illi­nois.

Ev­ery­one but Donald Trump knows that Donald Trump’s worst en­emy is Donald Trump. But his re­fusal to get off of Twit­ter and more gen­er­ally act “pres­i­den­tial” also stems from his mis­in­ter­pret­ing how he be­came pres­i­dent in the first place.

Trump feels his loose-can­non ap­proach to pol­i­tics was val­i­dated by his win­ning the na­tion’s high­est of­fice in the face of over­whelm­ing op­po­si­tion from the Amer­i­can political es­tab­lish­ment and mass me­dia. That vic­tory fur­ther fed his ego by con­firm­ing in his own mind pre­sump­tions of political ge­nius; he thinks his political for­mula “works” and is com­mit­ted to stick­ing with it, crit­ics be damned.

The same logic in­flu­ences many Trump sup­port­ers, who con­clude that only Trump could have beaten Hil­lary Clin­ton and thereby pre­vented Amer­ica’s makeover into a Scan­di­na­vian-style so­cial democ­racy.

The prob­lem with all this, and thus the source of so many of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s prob­lems, is that it gets the 2016 elec­tion al­most com­pletely back­wards—far from be­ing the only Repub­li­can that could have beaten Hil­lary, Trump was about the only Repub­li­can that Hil­lary had a chance to beat. That she won three mil­lion more votes doesn’t mat­ter in a le­gal sense, but it should tell us some­thing about the weak­nesses of Trump as a can­di­date (and pres­i­dent) and about how aw­ful his cam­paign was.

Yes, Trump ben­e­fited to some ex­tent from his pop­ulist, anti-politi­cian per­sona, but it seems likely that, decades from now, his win­ning the pres­i­dency will be at­trib­uted largely to luck; a “perfect storm” of idio­syn­cratic and un­likely events that came to­gether to pro­duce what was in essence an elec­toral fluke.

In other words, Trump won not be­cause of but in spite of him­self.

Even Trump’s win­ning the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion was some­thing of an aber­ra­tion—he ben­e­fited from high name recog­ni­tion in an un­usu­ally crowded GOP field, from me­dia fas­ci­na­tion that pro­vided him with more cov­er­age than the rest of that field com­bined, and, most of all, from be­ing con­tin­u­ally un­der­es­ti­mated by his ri­vals. As late as the Florida pri­mary, Ted Cruz was, for in­stance, us­ing all his TV spots to go af­ter Marco Ru­bio rather than Trump, in the hope that, were the race to come down to just Cruz and Trump, Cruz would win.

The same logic mo­ti­vated Ru­bio, John Ka­sich and the rest of a GOP field that came to re­sem­ble a cir­cu­lar fir­ing squad. At no point, at least un­til it was too late, did the lead­ing GOP con­tenders take Trump se­ri­ously; it was sim­ply as­sumed that he would im­plode un­der the weight of gaffes that would have de­stroyed the ca­reer of any or­di­nary politi­cian.

Ego drives Trump, but it was also ego and selfish am­bi­tion that pre­vented his ri­vals from act­ing in con­cert to stop him— each put their pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions above the in­ter­ests of the Repub­li­can Party, thereby mak­ing Trump’s hos­tile takeover of it pos­si­ble.

The same fac­tors—luck, an over­con­fi­dent op­po­si­tion, and un­der­es­ti­ma­tion of his can­di­dacy—were also cru­cial to Trump’s win­ning last Novem­ber.

Con­ser­va­tives who claim that Trump, and only Trump, could have saved us from a Hil­lary Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion for­get that Clin­ton was the weak­est can­di­date the Democrats put forth since Ge­orge McGovern, maybe go­ing back still fur­ther. She would have prob­a­bly lost to just about any­body in the GOP field, in­clud­ing even Mike Huck­abee, Bobby Jin­dal, Ben Car­son, or Rand Paul, and al­most cer­tainly by a land­slide to Ru­bio, Cruz, or Ka­sich. All the in­di­ca­tors pointed to­ward a GOP vic­tory in 2016, but be­cause of Trump they came re­mark­ably close to blow­ing it.

Trump thus ben­e­fited from hav­ing a spec­tac­u­larly his­tor­i­cally aw­ful op­po­nent for which the ma­jor­ity of the elec­torate was search­ing for any kind of semi-vi­able al­ter­na­tive, and just barely enough in enough places found it in him.

Trump didn’t win so much as Hil­lary lost. Again, run­ning against a ter­ri­ble can­di­date run­ning a ter­ri­ble, over-con­fi­dent cam­paign, Trump got just 46.1 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote. A sup­pos­edly es­pe­cially weak GOP nom­i­nee, Mitt Rom­ney, got 47.2 per­cent in 2012, run­ning against vastly su­pe­rior com­pe­ti­tion (Barack Obama).

Yes, Trump at­tracted just enough white work­ing-class vot­ers in Wis­con­sin, Michi­gan, and Penn­syl­va­nia, but his cu­mu­la­tive win­ning mar­gin was less than 80,000 votes and he prob­a­bly ran well be­hind pre­vi­ous GOP nom­i­nees among typ­i­cal Repub­li­can con­stituen­cies, in­clud­ing white mid­dle-class sub­ur­ban­ites, in the same states. He was, in short, any­thing but an elec­toral jug­ger­naut, and it’s likely that he con­tin­ues to scare more peo­ple away from the GOP than he at­tracts to it.

The 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion was in­deed a ref­er­en­dum on Trump, but it was also, con­trary to his self-flat­ter­ing un­der­stand­ing, a largely neg­a­tive one, just as his 39 per­cent ap­proval rat­ing of his per­for­mance as pres­i­dent now is.

Far from be­ing the political wun­derkind of his own imag­i­na­tion, Trump still doesn’t un­der­stand how lucky he was; even now, to the ex­tent he re­mains afloat at all, it is be­cause much of the pub­lic finds his en­e­mies even more ap­palling and un­hinged than he is.

In Trump’s fail­ure to un­der­stand all of this is found the rea­son for so many of his self-in­flicted wounds.

It isn’t too late to change course, but the last thing Trump, the GOP, and the na­tion needs is to “let Trump be Trump.”

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