Opinion writer

Will Donald Trump’s epic meltdown in Iowa — which has been widely ridiculed by the political classes today — have any impact on his long-term chances?

There is a great deal of chatter about how Trump may have fatally damaged himself by calling the voters of Iowa “stupid” for believing Ben Carson’s redemption tales. But as David Kurtz and Brian Beutler point out, this is just more of the same from Trump, who has built his entire candidacy on calling out mass stupidity and vowing to roll over it to get things done. Voters may just acquiesce to this as another part of the show, the way audiences submit to, and even laugh along with, a stand-up comic who is brutally ridiculing them.

But this meltdown represents something much greater than merely a cringeworthy spectacle. In a way Trump’s rambling monologue amounts to an indictment of the fundamental stupidity and arbitrariness of American politics in general. And as such, we may look back at this moment and see it in a different light, as crossing from sheer buffoonery into a semi-poignant glimpse into the foibles of human vanity. That’s because the stupidity and arbitrariness that Trump rages at here are the reasons why Trump himself has held the lead for so long, perhaps persuading him that he has an actual shot at being president. And so, whether he knows this or not, Trump is railing at the same forces that elevated him — and, he seems to sense, may be deserting him. They may not end up deserting him — perhaps Trump will be the nominee, though I highly doubt it — but he seems to sense that they just might.

Much attention has been paid to Trump’s mockery of the notion that Carson’s knife “hit the belt” and “broke,” which is pure low comedy. Trump’s attacks on Carson for being incurably “pathological,” like a “child molester,” are probably going to cost him, and the Carson campaign wisely zeroed in on those today. A Carson spokesman said: “To see him just imploding before our very eyes — it’s sad to watch.”

Trump himself seems to sense a possible pending implosion, and that was on display during his Iowa monologue. Note the part where Trump says this about Carson:

“He goes into the bathroom for a couple of hours, and he comes out, and now he’s religious, and the people of Iowa believe him. Give me a break. Give me a break. It doesn’t happen that way. It doesn’t happen that way….Don’t be fools. Don’t be fools….

“What the hell have we come to? What have we come to? When we have to believe this kind of stuff, and we’re gonna put somebody in office, who considers himself to have pathological disease?”

Trump is upset because Carson is now leading in Iowa, which he thinks is just crazy. How is it possible that Carson could be leading in polls in a contest for leader of the free world, simply by virtue of the fact that he told lurid personal tales — which may be exaggerated or made up — that captivated a lot of attention? Well, we know the answer to that question: the political scientists tell us that early polling leads often reflect things like name recognition and outsize levels of media attention. These polls don’t actually mean that “we are going to put him in office,” as Trump puts it. They create appearances of support that are misleading and are all but certain to prove fleeting.

Indeed, Trump himself has almost certainly been benefiting from that same phenomenon. After all, Trump’s lead in the polls — which has persisted for months but now seems to be getting challenged by Carson — seems only marginally less absurd than Carson’s poll boomlet now does. Trump’s polling probably can also be explained by media attention and name recognition, all of which was helped along when he spewed bile at debate moderators, insulted millions of Mexican immigrants, ranted about making Mexico pay for a new wall on the border, called everyone in sight stupid, boasted about his wealth, and so forth. Now, it’s certainly possible that Trump has tapped into something much more serious among GOP primary voters, who appear to agree with his immigration views and may be responding to the peculiar right wing populist blend he has concocted. If he does show real staying power once the voting starts, we’ll have to rip up our political rule books.

But he very well might not show such staying power, and he may fade away. If so, the old rules will have held, and his appearance of support will have proven illusory. The stupid and arbitrary factors that often drive American politics — media attention and name recognition — will have fooled Trump, and all of us, again.

Those factors are all but certainly the same ones that are driving Carson to the top of polls as we speak, and they will all but certainly prove just as fleeting in his case. Trump is right to rail at the profound absurdity of the Carson spectacle. But the problem is that in so doing, he’s also railing at the same absurdities that have been holding him aloft, too. He seems to sense that it might not last. Whether or not Trump actually believes he’ll be president is a big unknown. But he has visibly allowed his own expectations to balloon along with the illusion of support these forces have created. Now, all of a sudden, those same forces seem baffling and inexplicably ridiculous, now that someone else is benefiting from them, at his expense.