With new polls out showing continuing strength for Trump and not much movement by any of the other candidates, I’m starting to think Trump may prove to be unstoppable. And the more I look back on it, the more this election cycle reminds me of . . . 1976. The genius of Jimmy Carter was to understand that after Johnson and Nixon, what the country wanted in a president was someone who taught Sunday school. The genius of Trump is to understand that after the unhappy Bush presidency and the divisiveness of Obama, a large plurality of Americans wants someone who will smash up the existing order—the details of how are not important.
It didn’t matter that Carter was inexperienced, that he was out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and that his positions on the issues were all over the map. It was his persona that carried him. Most importantly, a “Stop Carter” movement by Democratic Party regulars never got traction. In fact Carter is why the Democrats created “superdelegates”—so they’d never get taken by a Carter again. (Instead, they landed on Dukakis when Jesse Jackson looked ascendant in 1988. That was a great idea.)
Here’s my account of some of that campaign from volume 1 of The Age of Reagan (which I wrote more than 15 years ago):
Even though Carter had never topped 54 percent in any contested primary, did not win a single head-to-head race, and lost eight of the last 15 primaries, he nevertheless went into the Democratic convention with a solid lock on the nomination. Sixty-four percent of delegates told an NBC survey that they had “reservations” about Carter, but it was too late; a series of “Stop Carter” movements among party liberals never gained traction.
Sounds kind of like now.
We forget now that Carter was publicly crude in ways that sound like Trump:
Yet a number of persistent traits seemed to belie his image of a straightforward, upright character. In 1979 he attracted public attention by remarking at a press luncheon that if Sen. Ted Kennedy challenged him for the Democratic nomination in 1980, he (Carter) would “whip his ass.” This was old hat to journalists who had covered Carter in 1976, when “kiss my ass” was Carter’s frequent and favorite epithet. “I’m glad I don’t have to kiss his ass,” Carter said of Ted Kennedy in May, 1976, when he (Carter) was closing in on the nomination. When a journalist asked Carter what would he do if a member of his Cabinet lied to Congress, Carter snapped, “I’d fire his ass.”
Like Trump, Carter was also capable of surviving a number of gaffes and rhetorical blunders that may not have been unintentional:
The biggest flap of his campaign occurred in April 1976 when, during questioning about integration issues, Carter blurted out: “I see nothing wrong with ethnic purity being maintained. I would not force a racial integration of a neighborhood by government action.” The reporter conducting the interview, Sam Roberts of the New York Daily News, buried the quote in a jump paragraph that appeared on page 134 of the paper. Rather than disappearing, however, the phrase “ethnic purity” ignited a firestorm. Under fierce questioning four days later, Carter poured gasoline on the fire: “What I say is that the government ought not to take as a major purpose the intrusion of alien groups into a neighborhood simply to establish their intrusion.” This catapulted the story onto the front page of the New York Times and onto the TV network news. “Ethnic purity” and “alien intrusion” were red flags to liberals and civil rights groups, and Carter had to work mightily to mend fences. But was it an unintentional slip? This flap arose after Carter had vanquished Wallace in the Florida primary, and on the eve of a series of crucial northern primaries in states where Wallace had done well previously. Careful observers noted that while Carter included Martin Luther King, Jr. on his roster of great Americans, he conveniently omitted King’s name before audiences of southern or suburban whites. Carter knew that Democrats had been losing the votes of suburban voters in the north because of busing and integration.
Sounds similar to Trump’s remarks on immigration, no? And rather than hurting him, it’s been a source of his strength.
You can draw your own further parallels and conclusions from here. My work is done.