WASHINGTON – It’s time to go back where we began: not only that Donald Trump will lose the Republican presidential nomination, but that he could be so weakened by the end of the primaries that his party will not even have to worry about choosing someone else.
I feel your skepticism. Hasn’t Trump so far defied all predictions of his demise? Absolutely. Hasn’t every claim that “now he’s gone too far” been wrong? Of course.
Let’s be honest about journalists: We find a lot of ways of being wrong.
One trap is “presentism,” the idea that whatever is happening now will keep happening. And it is, indeed, easy to project Trump’s impending doom after his most miserable week yet.
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He responded rather ineffectually to criticisms from Wisconsin conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes. His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was charged with battery. Trump reacted by aggressively attacking the credibility of conservative reporter Michelle Fields, the woman Lewandowski is accused of hurting. The front-runner thus fed the perception that he’s a misogynist.
For good measure, Trump flip-flopped on whether women should be legally punished for having an abortion, underscoring that he really hasn’t thought very much about the positions he is taking or even what he says from moment to moment.
But the killer news for the man who values winning above everything else is that he has dropped well behind Ted Cruz in the polls in Wisconsin, which holds its primary on Tuesday. A loss there, particularly a big one, would greatly complicate Trump’s already difficult path to a delegate majority of 1,237.
You could look at the week as an aberration that Trump, the magician, will somehow surmount. In fact, these episodes tumbling one upon the other ratify what Trump skeptics said all along: that he is utterly unprepared to be a serious candidate, let alone president of the United States; that an endless stream of insults against all who get in his way wears thin over time; that he is winging it and stubbornly refusing to do the homework the enterprise he’s engaged in requires; and that trashing ethnic and religious minorities can win you a fair number of votes but not, thank God, a majority of Americans.
The always instructive Yogi Berra explained the New York Yankees’ loss of the 1960 World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates by saying: “We made too many wrong mistakes.” In the case of Trump, journalists are so worried about their old mistake of underestimating the man’s staying power that they now risk making the wrong mistake of missing his fall.
Why does this matter to anyone except pundits? First, Trump’s troubles threaten to go beyond Wisconsin. He could now lose in other big states that vote next including Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey and possibly even his home state of New York. If this happens, it will be far easier for the Republican Party bosses (such as they are these days) to deny him the nomination. Trump will come to look less like the rank-and-file Republican favorite and more like a flash in the pan.
Second, Democrats Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would lose their ideal opponent. From their point of view, Trump’s collapse may come too early. It’s true that if the very right-wing Cruz were the Republican nominee instead of Trump, the Democratic winner – it’s still likely to be Clinton, despite Sanders’ current surge – would be favored.
But an utter Trump implosion might free the Cleveland convention to turn to someone entirely outside the current crop of candidates, someone unsullied by the ugly and vulgar GOP primary campaign. A sinking Trump would have far less power to resist such an outcome. Democrats need to prepare now for the strong possibility that they will not be lucky enough to run against The Donald.
Most importantly, journalists need to remember that ratings and page views are not the same as votes and that Americans may love circuses but ultimately want elections to be more than Barnum & Bailey productions. Trump has entranced the media and ignited a minority of Republican primary voters. He has never, ever won over anything close to a majority of the American electorate. We demean ourselves as a people if we think that Trumpism is the wave of the future.
Journalists and citizens alike should cultivate, not resist, their most honorable instincts. The instinct that Americans would never choose as their president a clownish peddler of racial and religious stereotypes who made everything up as he went along was right from the start.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.