Let’s start with this: Donald Trump is not going to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.
Trump may be in the middle of a bit of a polling burst, but those same polls show large numbers of people who won’t vote for the reality TV star under any circumstances. You don’t win party nominations when 40 percent (or more) of the party won’t vote for you under any circumstances.
But just because Trump isn’t going to win (or even come close) doesn’t mean that his rise — and the massive amount of attention he continues to attract — is meaningless. It’s not. The question, however, is what exactly Trump’s, gulp, popularity means.
I put that question to a dozen or so of the smartest Republican and Democratic strategists I know over the weekend. And their answers largely fell into two camps that I’ll describe as: 1. The Kardashian Culture and 2. The Bulworth Effect.
The Karshashian Culture dictates that the American public will pay attention to celebrities — whether they like them or not. The ups and downs of the entire Kardashian clan — led by the ubiquitous Kim — are followed by lots and lots of people who mock them every step of the way. They are famous for being famous.
“A celebrity can get attention and cause trouble by playing on the resentments of a minority of voters,” said Charlie Black, a lobbyist and longtime Republican Party figure. “Donald will become a sideshow and a punching bag.”
Black’s argument, which was echoed by a number of other Republicans and even some Democrats I talked to, is that Trump’s celebrity, whatever that actually entails, means that when (not if) he says outlandish things, it will draw attention from lots and lots of people.
The belief among those who subscribe to the Kardashian Culture theory is that while all publicity is good publicity for reality stars (eyeballs = ratings/money), that’s not how politics works. While people might come to a rally to watch the Trump spectacle, very few of those folks would actually cast a vote for him to be the most powerful person in the country.
Then there’s the Bulworth Effect. Remember Warren Beatty as Sen. Jay Bulworth, the politician who, in the midst of running for reelection, decides to speak the truth — no matter how painful — at all times to the American public? (If you don’t remember it, go watch “Bulworth”; it’s a GREAT political movie.)
“Trump is the manifestation of folks’ distrust, disgust and discouragement in all things D.C., party, politics and political correctness,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican operative.
Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster, noted that in a recent focus group of swing- voting women there was a surprising amount of interest in Trump. “They don’t agree with what he says — but they like the fact that he will say anything and that’s he’s not handled, not beholden, not packaged,” she said. “They hate what politics has become. He is a disruption to that.”
Trump’s rhetoric on undocumented workers is an example of what Carney and Matthews are talking about. Washington Republicans have long acknowledged that the only way for the party to build a winning national coalition is to get rid of immigration reform as an impediment to their efforts to recruit Latinos to their side. (Supporting comprehensive immigration reform was a recommendation from the report commissioned by the Republican National Committee after the 2012 election.)
But many people within the GOP simply don’t buy that sort of long-game approach. Immigrants who came to the country illegally should be punished for breaking the law. Any solution other than that amounts to a bow to political correctness. That’s the Trump position.
Trump’s willingness to say the sorts of things that make political Washington’s collective eyes roll is the very thing that makes him appeal to people who hate Washington and hate politicians. All of his boasting — “I am really smart” etc. — gets a pass among this crowd under the idea that all politicians think it but that only Trump says it. (On that, I actually agree.)
Under the Bulworth Effect theory, Trump’s candidacy has something of a longer shelf life — until, that is, a candidate with negatives slightly shorter than the Trump Tower comes along and co-opts his anti-everything message.
I’d throw one other thought into the “what Trump means” conversation — a sort of corollary to the Bulworth Effect.
And that is that Trump’s worldview is all black and white, good vs. evil, us vs. them. It’s simple. It reminds a certain segment of voters of how things used to be. Trump’s views are a throwback that, like most remembrances of things past, may or may not be based in how things actually used to be. There’s no room for political correctness or rationalizations in Trumpworld. For some, that’s their ideal version of the world.
No one I talked to thought Trump would be the nominee. Most expressed some level of shock, however, that he has made as many ripples in the race as he has. How much longer will Trump matter? That depends on which theory you subscribe to.