Why Donald Trump Matters

The political press is struggling over how exactly to report on Donald Trump. On one hand, we absolutely love covering him—Trump's intoxicating combination of boorishness, ignorance, tactlessness, and overconfidence, all wrapped up in a gold-plated package, is utterly irresistible as copy. On the other hand, we feel a little guilty about it, as though we know it's bad for us and bad for the public. Which is what produces the endless assurances that, despite his rather remarkable strength in the polls, you should rest assured that he is not going to be his party's nominee.

You see that judgment made about other candidates all the time, but seldom repeated so often and almost never for someone who is leading in all the primary polls. And while it might be true, we've now moved beyond the point where we don't have to take Trump seriously.

He's not going anywhere, and he's going to define the Republican primary race for some time to come.

It's a hard thing to accept, because he's such a ridiculous character. And by "take Trump seriously" I don't mean, say, examining his policy ideas, because he really has none to speak of. What I mean is this: He's not going anywhere, and he's going to define the Republican primary race for some time to come.

Yes, it's still a long way from when the first votes will be cast, and at the moment Trump has almost none of the trappings of an ordinary campaign. But don't be surprised if that 20 percent or so he's now pulling in polls doesn't change very much. While we don't have a lot of detailed data on who the Trump voters are, chances are they're people who are disaffected with politicians in general and Republican politicians in particular. They're attracted to Trump precisely because he's so different, and if he's different in ways other people find appalling, then so what?

While lots of politicians claim to be straight talkers who tell it like it is, next to Trump they all sound like robots. An ordinary politician will say, "My good friend the governor couldn't be more wrong about this," and that's when he really gets his dander up. Trump says that Rick Perry "should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate." He says, "What a stiff, Lindsey Graham." And it's not just his opponents—Charles Krauthammer is "a totally overrated clown," Karl Rove is "a total loser," and on it goes.  

An ordinary politician will tout his achievements, but won't literally say "I'm a really good manager" or "I've got lots of integrity," because that would sound not just arrogant but downright weird. Trump, however, is unafraid to tell you exactly what his most admirable qualities are. Like how at a recent campaign event he listed off some criticisms of Scott Walker, then added, "I wrote all this stuff down though I don't need to though because I've got a really good memory." Or earlier: "I'm, like, a really smart person."

Trump's authentic self may be somewhere between hilarious and horrifying, but there's no question he's being real.

Most of us look at all that and laugh. But there are obviously a sizable chunk of people who respond, "You keep on giving 'em hell, Donald!" They love it, and they aren't completely wrong to feel that way. Politicians spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince us that they're just folks, a calculated performance meant to create the illusion of authenticity. Trump's authentic self may be somewhere between hilarious and horrifying, but there's no question he's being real.

So many of the arguments you could wield against another candidate won't work against Trump. Tell his voters that Trump is less electable than some more conventional candidate, and they don't care. So as long as there are lots of candidates splitting the votes, Trump's 20 percent will keep him near the lead, and keep him convinced that he can win. Unless he gets bored, he wouldn't have any reason to leave the race.

And keep in mind that presidential candidates pull out not when they've lost a certain number of contests or when their support dips below a certain number, but when they run out of money. Running out of money is a consequence of losing primaries or finding your support dwindle—when it looks like you're doomed, nobody wants to donate. But when the final decision is made, it's almost always the lack of cash that makes every candidate but the winner pack it in. It's hard to keep campaigning when you can't afford a plane ticket to get to the next primary, let alone a round of advertising.

Trump, on the other hand, can spend as much as he wants to keep things going. Not only that, given how much free media he gets, he doesn't have to pay for the things traditional candidates do: a sizeable staff, TV advertising, direct mail, polling, fundraising expenses, and so on. He may decide to add those things at some point, but for now the billionaire is the one running the leanest campaign.

Despite all the comic relief he provides, there are good reasons to take the Trump phenomenon seriously, even if you can't quite bring yourself to take the man himself, or his candidacy, seriously. He has highlighted a number of important strains of thought within the GOP, including dissatisfaction with party leaders, xenophobia, and the simplistic but powerful belief that even the thorniest political problems have easy solutions. The eventual Republican nominee will have to deal with the fallout from his candidacy, particularly among Hispanic voters. And no matter how this election turns out, Trump will have been one of the most important stories of 2016. 

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