If there is anything that validates Donald Trump’s claim to outsider status in the current presidential race, it’s his threat to sue and force a “do over” of the Iowa caucuses. The real estate developer seems to think this is one of his cockamamie business deals, where everybody sues everybody at the end, then settles so half the participants walk away with money they neither earned nor deserve.
Trump is upset because the last Iowa polls—including the highly respected Des Moines Register survey—showed him with a substantial lead on both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Because the polls didn’t predict the actual result, the developer believes something underhanded must have happened.
His supporters allege, among other minor irregularities, that Cruz backers circulated a caucus day rumor that Ben Carson had dropped out of the race, thereby drawing the neurosurgeon’s Evangelical Christian voters into the Cruz column. If there was anything that demonstrates how often “outsider” actually translates as “political amateur” it is Trump’s belief that amounts to much of a dirty trick. The truth is that the guy just hates to lose.
Trump’s tantrum — which, if it continues, could turn this election cycle into the lawyers’ full-employment act as every primary result is challenged in court — does provide an opportunity to stop and think about the limits of even the best political polling.
Obviously, it’s no fun to lose when all the smart people — some of them on your own payroll— have told you you’re going to win. Just ask Mitt Romney about that, or recall how Karl Rove virtually suffered an on-camera nervous breakdown on Fox News while analyzing the 2012 election night returns.
Polling is a rational art and not a purely mechanistic technology. By that I mean, while public opinion surveys must obey the rules of statistics and predictive mathematics, they require human intervention at key parts of the process, intervention designed to help mathematic models take into account the messier, even irrational aspects of human behavior. Thus, even an honest poll can be wrong, if the pollster makes the wrong assumptions about the prospective makeup of the electorate or the composition of the population most likely to go to the polls. (That’s what happened to Romney’s surveys last time around.)
Then, there’s the irreducible fact even the best poll is a frozen snapshot of a dynamic process. Things can happen after that poll/snapshot is taken to alter the facts on the ground. Did Trump’s grandstanding refusal to take part in the Republicans’ last pre-caucus debate alienate some likely voters? We’ll never know.
It’s likely, however, that some combination of these factors, rather than dirty tricks or illegality accounted for the polling meltdown in Iowa. Whether something similar is going on in the national polls, nearly all of which show Trump with a strong lead remains to be discovered—if Trump’s ego will permit him to hang in without making himself look even more churlish and foolishly callow than he already does.
While Trump’s stunningly successful insurgency and the slow motion dissolution of the aura of inevitably surrounding Hillary Clinton have understandably dominated coverage of this election cycle, there also is a larger story about the tectonic shift in partisan American politics that now seems to be underway. The way in which that shift has created a space for Trump is far more interesting than the blowhard developer himself.
At the very least, it is likely that we are witnessing the final stage of the crackup that the Republican Party has been going through for past century or so. The truth is that American political parties never have evinced the ideological coherence of their counterparts in the European democracies.
If, as Kierkegaard said, “Purity of the heart is to will one thing,” then our parties always have been unselfconsciously impure amalgams of various tendencies — many of them antagonistically contradictory. The Republicans, for example, never have been a conservative party in the sense Edmund Burke had in mind when he codified that noun. A Burkean conservative conceives tradition, family and the established social order tested through previous generations as the foundations of a genuine liberty every bit as essential as reason.
From the start, by contrast, the GOP has been the advocate for commerce and capitalism; it was founded, in fact, to promote economic modernization and to oppose expansion of slavery into the new states and territories essentially as an economic rather than a moral measure. Capitalism of the sort the Republicans always have promoted is Western history’s most powerfully ruthless agent of change and social disruption. It undermines inherited traditions and orthodoxies of every sort.
As Marx — who was right about a number of important things, though we’re no longer allowed to say it — correctly pointed out, through the extension of consumer sovereignty, capitalism “abolished the idiocy of rural life”—by which he meant the determinism of inherited tradition, the notion that we should or can live just as our fathers and mothers did before us.
Since the Second World War, however, various right-wing thinkers have worked to graft some sort of conservative ideology onto the Republican advocacy of Mark Hannah’s simple creed: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”Believing it was critical to make their party something more than “an organized appetite,” they’ve tried make it a party of ideas, as well.
From Russell Kirk to David Frum, from Barry Goldwater to the Koch Brothers, these efforts have amounted to little more than a soft patina of partial libertarianism alongside unbridled capitalism. Even there, a libertarian “politics of liberty” finds itself inevitably in conflict with the “sociology of virtue” to which the religious right, a critical Republican constituency, subscribes.
What post-war Republicanism has been particularly good at, is attracting the angry and the alienated. That’s why the Party of Lincoln essentially has become the national white people’s party with its center of gravity located in the states of the old Confederacy. It’s also why the historic party of free trade has become a haven for the most bitter working class victims of the new globalized economy. While insisting it is a party of ideas, the GOP has become, in fact, the party of angry, fearful resentment.
Trump’s real achievement is to bring this into the open. His campaign has decoupled Republicans’ anger and resentment from any pretense of ideology. When you back Trump, you’re not choosing in the political sense so much as venting in the emotional one. He’s been able to do this in so breathtaking a way because he does not come out of any tradition of governance or politics, but out of the most debased of the entertainment genres—reality TV. Note that he refers to those attending his rallies not as voters or constituents, but as “fans.” When it comes to Democracy, the distinction is crucial.
A politician who cares only about their polling numbers is an opportunist; a reality TV personality who will do anything for ratings usually is a winner. Trump’s indifference to embarrassment or shame is total because his narcissism is a kind of emotional black hole so utterly dense that it captures and destroys every other feeling and solely emits not Hawking Radiation, but ambition.
Trump’s latest maneuver over his Iowa defeat also plays directly into that sense of betrayal, of being stabbed in the back that is a critical component of contemporary Republican politics. Somebody is always treacherously betraying American conservatives and their value. Sometimes it’s the cultural, commercial or academic “elites.” Often it’s their own leaders — Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, both Bush’s and, to some of the hardest right-wingers, even Reagan. They’ve even coined a term for these quislings, “Rinos”—“Republicans in name only.”
As Garry Wills writes in the current New York Review of Books, “To be on the right is to feel perpetually betrayed. At a time when the right has commanding control of radio and television talk shows, it still feels persecuted by the ‘mainstream media.’ With all the power of the 1% in charge of the nation’s wealth, the right feels its influence is being undermined by the academy, where liberals lurk to brainwash conservative parents’ children.”
With their faux conservative pastiche of ideology as cover, the Republican great and good continue to display various degrees of denial and horror when it come to the Trump insurgency—and toward that of the Iowa winner, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. What the GOP grandees don’t want to admit—even to themselves—is that they’ve been inciting the angriest and most resentful white Americans for eight years now with their recklessly histrionic anti-Obama rhetoric. They have sown a bitter wind with abandon and now may be forced to reap a whirlwind more chaotic and destructive than anything they ever imagined.