Donald Trump emerged from the Fox News debate two weeks ago as the clear leader among the 17 candidates vying for the Republican nomination for president.
Insofar as we have anything resembling a reliable poll – and, for the sake of argument, the latest CNN/ORC poll will have to do – Trump not only commands 25 percent of GOP voters, he’s also competitive in a general election matchup with Hillary Clinton.
It’s a dream, right?
Just a crazy dream of an old man slipping ever deeper into dementia, or the weird flowering of an autistic child’s imagination. Yes, that must be the answer. It’s the “St. Elsewhere” of American politics and we’re all living in the snow globe. (Only $12.99 at the Trump Tower gift shop.)
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Because if it’s not a dream, then we may have to conclude that about a quarter of Republican primary voters are the cartoon caricatures the unsubtle left has made them out to be for all these years – unserious, maybe even unhinged.
In what other than a dream world could a candidate for a major political party – the Party of Lincoln, for heaven’s sake! – talk like a Know-Nothing or a latter-day William Jennings Bryan and gain support?
In what other than a dream world is the Republicans’ second choice Jeb Bush? A fine governor of Florida, yes, but didn’t we learn our lesson from Bush 41 and 43? Guilt by association is a pernicious fallacy, but in this case even the Arbiters of Logic would offer dispensation.
Where but in some Lotus Land (or Nashua, N.H.) could Marco Rubio, the freshman U.S. senator from Florida, win plaudits as the greatest Republican orator since Ronald Wilson Reagan? Has anyone actually listened to him? The man cannot go two sentences without uttering a focus group tested bromide or cliché.
Alas, this is no dream. This is devolution.
Nice republic we had here. Pity we couldn’t keep it. And I say that – and have been saying it in these pages and elsewhere for quite some time – not because I think Trump is going to win or should win or has any real hope of winning.
Trump speaks to a genuine sentiment among Americans in general and Republicans in particular. People believe, correctly, that the current ruling class of Republicans and Democrats holds them in contempt. Yet they also crave leadership with a capital-L, a modern-day Caesar.
Trump speaks freely and fearlessly in an age of trigger warnings and studious political correctness. Many Americans detest the safe, staid language of politics and culture.
Doesn’t his outrage just send a thrill up your leg?
What’s more, Trump is talking about issues that concern most rank-and-file Republicans.
Neither political party is serious about fixing the legal immigration and naturalization process, or securing the borders. Trump talks about immigration in bold strokes. And he raises bona fide policy questions, such as rethinking birthright citizenship, that deserve an honest hearing.
But that can never happen now. Trump’s bluster about repealing the 14th Amendment guarantees that any Republican who so much as whispers birthright citizenship would be dismissed forevermore as a Trumpite lunatic.
My Republican friends speak of Trump’s supporters in hushed, frightened tones. Do not insult them. Do not anger them. Invite them in. Just try to avoid eye contact and don’t make any sudden movements.
Trumpism is righteous anger turned to wrath.
Conservatives used to recognize a demagogue when they saw one. We were once repelled by mob rule.
Eventually, we all must wake from our dream and face the bright light of day. Donald Trump won’t be president. But somebody like him – a slightly more refined populist, say – would have an excellent chance.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.