May 4, 2016: This story has been updated to reflect that John Kasich has left the race.
I’m not sure which is worse – that Donald Trump has become the presumptive GOP nominee or that, soon enough, it will all come to seem normal.
It’s not normal, of course. Not the idea of it and certainly not the fact of it.
But with his win in Indiana, Trump has all but ended the GOP nomination process. Ted Cruz has dropped out. John Kasich, proving he has some grasp on the real world, dropped out the next morning. And so it is real, pinch-yourself real, no-more-chance-of-riots-in-Cleveland real, nationalism-is-the-new-ism real, and we’re all just going to have to live with that, especially those Republican Party leaders who, in horror, watched Trump expose the truth of their party’s message.
No one thought Trump could get this far. Certainly I didn’t, having cleverly predicted that the Donald would would drop out before a single vote was cast. Trump, the reality-TV-star-cum-demagogue, began his campaign as a joke line, a buffoonish short-fingered vulgarian who made the debate stage a place to defend the size of his, uh, you know. And yet now that it has happened, the countless would-be explanations you’ll read in the papers or see from TV pundits won’t come close to truly explaining it.
What’s clear is that a campaign based on fear, insults, sexism, xenophobia, race-baiting, nativism, narcissism and a dozen other repugnancies can work. Trump won the approval of half the nation — whatever his huge poll-number unfavorables tell you — by beating back the GOP establishment, the Koch brothers, the #neverTrumpists and the entire staff of The National Review.
The facts are strange enough. Trump won against a large field that featured nearly every one of the GOP’s so-called bright lights, including those who were expected to shine but didn’t. And he won by not only attacking women and Muslims and Mexicans, but also the Republican establishment that still can’t decide what to do with him.
Some are calling it a Joe McCarthy moment – and that everyone will remember who lined up with Trump and who lined up against him. My guess is that most of the establishment is unworried about history and more concerned by the fact they have no idea what to do with Trump. My guess is they’ll pretend to embrace him just long enough to see him lose in November and hope no one remembers.
My own poor explanation for Trump’s rise is that his nomination is the inevitable result for a party that has exploited working-class anger while offering nothing more than tax cuts for the rich and the cheapest cuts of red meat for everyone else. Trump saw that anger worked — this campaign actually started, you’ll recall, with the Donald’s leading role in the birther movement — and his authoritarian-style rallies gave his supporters license to “knock the crap” out of anyone who objected.
Trump, meanwhile, did his own bullying, quoting Mussolini along the way. And so it should come as no surprise how the campaign ended — with Trump somehow linking Cruz’s father to the Kennedy assassination. Yes, seriously. The slander was so deliciously incredible – ripped as it was from the pages of The National Enquirer — that no one even bothered to say they believed it. Even the cable-TV-news Trump enablers were calling it ridiculous. And then, boom, Trump swept Indiana and whatever grassy knolls exist there.
That morning, Cruz was calling Trump an immoral, pathological liar and “narcissist on a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.” By that night, a humiliated (if not humbled) Cruz was giving his concession speech, never mentioning Trump by name or whether he would support him.
Could Cruz support Trump? Of course he could if he figured it would help his career. I mean, it’s difficult to feel sorry for Lyin’ Ted, who had cynically praised Trump for most of the nomination process. It was only when it suited him that he told voters that Trump was leading the country to the “abyss.”
So now, as if doubling down on the abyss line, all the pundits are saying don’t blame the media and that, anyway, Trump can’t win in November. And, yes, he trails Clinton by 10 points in the polls and Sanders by more than that. The electoral map trends Democratic even without someone like Trump running. He may, as many are suggesting, go down in the Goldwater/McGovern tradition of candidates overwhelmingly rejected by voters. And yet. And yet.
As one of two candidates left (OK, one of three, if you’re a die-hard Bernie person), Trump could conceivably win. That’s why they play the games, even when the games become as dangerous as this one. And has anyone played the games any more successfully than Trump? I mean, Trump wins and Clinton is still trying to shake Bernie.
I’ve already seen the Trump/Clinton jokes on Twitter, but they’re not actually funny. Clinton has flaws aplenty — well documented flaws — but last I heard, she’s not advocating more nukes in Asia or bans on Muslims or double-secret plans to destroy ISIS. Hillary is not the Donald, or even remotely so.
That’s why George Will writes that it’s every conservative’s duty to ensure that Trump not only loses, but loses all 50 states. That’s why leading Republican operatives are hashtagging #imwithher, even though Clinton has been a dirty name for Republicans for 25 years. That’s why Eric Erickson says he’s staying home on Election Day.
And it’s why, bringing a message to the Bernie wing of the Democratic Party, Elizabeth Warren fired off a Facebook post Tuesday night saying that she would do everything in her power to stop “Donald Trump’s toxic stew of hatred and insecurity” from reaching the White House.
Maybe the funniest moment of the campaign came when Trump, after playing one of his bully-boy games, said he could act presidential whenever he chose. It would be funny unless, that is, we actually get to find out if it’s true.