So Donald Trump is surging in the polls, despite the near-universal scorn of the party establishment, the media, and most conservative leaders. Everyone hates The Donald, it seems, except, you know, actual voters. More than a few of our loyal commenters here have pushed back against our criticisms of Trump.
The real surprise would be if Trump hadn’t surged in the polls. Americans of all parties, but especially conservatives and populists of what is sometimes called the “angry middle,” almost invariably take for the outspoken outsider—not just a governor or some non-Washington person running as an “outsider,” which almost all successful presidential candidates have done now for nearly 50 years. (Which is another reason why Hillary can’t win—she’s too much of a Washington/Establishment insider.) We like their candor, flamboyance, and the novelty of a non-politician running for office. It’s one of the time-honored tropes of modern American politics.
In 1992, it was Ross Perot, who briefly led in the polls until he unleashed his crazy. (And he still got almost 20 percent of the vote.) John Anderson played this role a bit in 1980 from the center-left. There were boomlets back in the 1980s for Lee Iacocca, then coming off the Chrysler turnaround that conveniently featured lots of TV ads featuring . . . Lee Iacocca! He flirted with the idea and I think commissioned some polls. Michael Bloomberg has thought about it, and might yet run as an independent or even a Democrat if Hillary implodes sooner rather than later. Last time in the Republican contest it was Herman Cain who dazzled for a while before fading. It looked like Ben Carson’s turn this time, except he’s got very credible competition for that slot from Carly Fiorina (who continues to impress, let me hasten to add), and now Trump.
But notice something: a genuine, non-politician outsider has never won the presidency. Never happens. The closest you can come is Herbert Hoover, but he’d been secretary of commerce for eight years. It’s not going to happen this time either, though I think Fiorina as a running mate is a real possibility. We like these flamboyant, novelty candidates for the respite they provide from the dreary regularity of the known field, but they never stick.
There are reasons for this. At the end of the day most voters actually prefer blandness to candor, or at the very least candor and outspokenness eventually costs you more votes than it gains, as the accumulation of mistakes and controversies take their toll. This is not to say that a person of strong views can’t get elected; they merely need to have considerable political skill to be successful at it. See: Ronald Reagan. Does anyone discern Trump’s latent Reaganesque political skill? Me neither.
Maybe Trump serves a useful purpose in creating some more space for the other candidates to take some chances. A Trump card indeed. But don’t bet the house on him.