Continetti is guest-blogging for The Post.
In February I went to the Conservative Political Action Conference to see Sen. Rand Paul. Boy was I in for a surprise. Paul’s speech was delayed to make room for someone else: Donald Trump. I won’t soon forget his remarks. Here’s the gist: America, you are a laughing stock and are going down the drain. Luckily, I am ready to be your president. I'm very intelligent. I'm rich. I'm famous. I've stood up against Rosie O’Donnell and I can stand up against the terrorists. Give me one good admiral and a ship and I'll defeat the pirates. You should be so lucky to have me as president.
What’s interesting about most public figures is the hint of the real person who lies beneath the trappings of fame and office. Whether it’s Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Sarah Palin, private reality differs from public perception. That’s not the case with Trump. He’s a caricature through and through. His speech at CPAC was funnier than most of the dreck on television. I was laughing as if I were at a Lewis Black show. And yet a not insignificant number of voters, Republicans in particular, appear to take Trump seriously.
Media coverage has focused on Trump’s belief in the birther conspiracy. But I doubt that’s the reason many in the Republican grass-roots are intrigued. Name-recognition surely plays a part in Trump’s poll numbers. What’s really behind the Trump bubble, though, is unchecked populism: the belief that America’s “ruling class” isn’t being honest with the American people and is driving the country off a cliff. The deeper you get into the populist weeds, the more frequently you come across people who think that Obama’s entire presidency is based on a lie, who are so disgusted with politicians that they are willing to turn over the country to a thrice-married egomaniac.
The populist tradition is as old as the country itself. And I’m sympathetic to the sentiment that everyday people have a better idea of how to run their lives than political, intellectual, cultural or business elites. But there comes a point at which populism ventures into conspiracism and the “country class” refuses to acknowledge political realities. Atop this unstable political real estate sits a Trump Tower.
The last time conservatives and Republican-leaning independents became enamored of an unfashionable, slightly weird, cartoonish businessman, Ross Perot took close to 20 percent of the popular vote and handed Bill Clinton the presidency. Which do conservatives value more: self-indulgence or the chance to repeal Obamacare, prevent a huge tax increase and overhaul the welfare state? I’m a little scared to know the answer. But I do know this: Trump must be stopped.