The general election campaign may have already begun.
In the aftermath of Super Tuesday election results, betting markets show Hillary Clinton with more than a 90 percent chance of becoming the Democratic nominee, and Donald Trump with at least a 75 percent chance of emerging as the Republican nominee.
This is the most astonishing presidential election since at least 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. The Republican front-runner is reviled not only by Democrats, but also by many prominent Republicans, and has less government experience than any president in history.
Only two presidents – William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover – lacked background in major elective office or in the military, and both had held Cabinet posts. In short, a Trump presidency would be unprecedented not only for his bizarre policy positions and propensity to insult women and minorities, but also because of his staggering lack of relevant experience or knowledge.
Trump has shrewdly manipulated the news media and has proved a much more accurate reader of the electorate than we pundits. Yet I’ve never met a national politician so ill informed, so evasive, so bombastic and – frankly – so puerile.
According to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, most Republican candidates spoke at a high-school or middle-school level in the last Republican debate, based on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Index. Meanwhile, Trump spoke at a third- or fourth-grade level. After the Nevada caucuses, Ted Cruz spoke at a ninth-grade level, Clinton at a seventh-grade level – and Trump at about a second-grade level! (I checked Trump’s victory speech on Super Tuesday evening, a more moderate speech that seemed to reach for the center, and Trump had raised his rhetoric to a sixth-grade level.)
So let me engage a (imaginary) Trump voter:
Me: How can you possibly support a demagogue with less experience than any president in history?
Voter: You media know-it-alls are so patronizing! Trump has experience where it matters, making things happen in the business world. Anyway, what have experienced politicians brought us? A corrupt and broken system. Let’s try something new – and at least he’s a straight shooter.
Me: He has a reputation as a straight shooter, but he lies. When PolitiFact was choosing its “lie of the year,” it found that all its real contenders were Trump statements – so it collectively awarded his many campaign misstatements the “lie of the year” award. And in backing him, you’re pretty much guaranteeing a Hillary Clinton presidency. Indeed, because of Trump, the betting markets are now predicting a Democratic Senate as well.
Voter: Come on! Trump proved all of you pundits wrong again and again, and he’ll do so again. And even those betting markets you like to cite – they show Trump with at least a 1-in-4 chance of being our next president, and that’s while other Republicans are trying to rip him apart. Just wait until the party rallies around Trump.
Me: But how can you support a candidate who is so hateful? This is a man who calls Mexican immigrants rapists, who is slow to denounce the Ku Klux Klan, and who is mulling a registry for Muslims. You’re OK with a racist in the White House?
Voter: Give me a break. You media guys always roll out the race card, but we’re fed up with political correctness. I don’t agree with everything Trump says, but at least he isn’t pussyfooting around. He’ll make America strong again. As for his wilder statements, take them with a grain of salt. He probably doesn’t believe them himself, but he’ll use them to negotiate. His history is as a dealmaker, not an ideologue.
Me: But Trump is already damaging America’s reputation worldwide by commenting sympathetically about Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Chinese massacre of protesters from the Tiananmen democracy movement. More than 580,000 Britons have signed a petition to ban him from British shores. And prominent economist Larry Summers warns that just the prospect of a protectionist demagogue as president could tip the United States into recession or trigger an international financial crisis.
Voter: Take a deep breath. I don’t care whether foreigners like us, as long as they fear us.
Me: And you don’t have a problem with a candidate who demeans women as sexual playthings, who critiques women based more on busts than brains (in his words: “A person who is very flat-chested is very hard to be a 10”), who insults or leers at half the population?
Voter: In the past, Trump was an entertainment personality, so he said outrageous things. From now on, he’ll be more presidential and more moderate, reaching out to Democrats – which he can do better than Cruz or Rubio, because he’s not so conservative. And for all your naysaying, he’ll be elected president, and he’ll show that all your anxieties are as imaginary as I am. Get used to the phrase: President Trump.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.