Donald Trump’s entrance into the Republican primary two months ago looked to many of us like a shot of comic relief. There were yuks about the yuuuge, classy wall he’d build on the southern border — with Mexico’s money — and his long-infamous hair.
Then Trump rose in the opinion polls, and some of our jokes turned into jeers, then jabs.
Just wait ’til Republican voters realize Trump used to hold liberal views on various issues, we said. But he kept going up.
Just wait ’til people hear he disparaged John McCain for being a prisoner of war, we said. Still, he rose.
Just wait ’til he has to share a stage with more serious folks. Just wait ’til you hear what he said about Megyn Kelly. Just wait. …
Depending on which polls or poll averages you check, Trump appears to have plateaued. He still pulls twice the support of his nearest GOP opponent, but he also has stalled around 25 percent — meaning 3 in 4 Republicans prefer someone else.
So I still don’t think Trump will be the nominee (and I still find him obnoxious). But it’s worth trying to understand what’s going on, and to fully get that, I think we have to look beyond him.
A month ago, what I’ll call the Not-Washington Crowd of candidates — Trump, neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, plus anti-establishment Sen. Ted Cruz — collectively got about 38 percent of voters, excluding undecideds, in the Huffington Post Pollster average. Eight current or ex-governors got a combined 45 percent.
Now, the tables have more than turned. The Not-Washington Crowd has 50 percent, and the governors have fallen to 35 percent.
The biggest risers have been Trump, Fiorina and Carson, in that order. The biggest drops: Scott Walker, then Jeb Bush. (Everyone else in the 17-person field has been virtually flat.)
Voters have been drawn to Trump, I think, for a few reasons. To some extent, it’s as simple as this: People are angry, Trump knows it, and he’s conducting a master class in Madison Avenue-style persuasion, as Dilbert creator Scott Adams recently detailed on his blog. (Who else but a cartoonist could explain this campaign?)
But the success of the other Not-Washington folks, at the expense of those long deemed front-runners, also looks like a considered vote of no-confidence in the governing class. A lot of voters no longer believe politicians can fix government. They see Trump’s “Make America Great Again” ball cap and think the hat might be cheesy, but the slogan is dead-on. It’s much the same sentiment, albeit not the exact playbook, that turned David Perdue into Georgia’s junior senator last year.
You can also see it, I think, in the rise of Bernie Sanders to nearly a quarter of the Democratic vote nationally, and even a lead over Hillary Clinton in one recent New Hampshire poll. Sanders may have been in Washington for 24 years, but his platform goes far beyond what Washington has done before.
Meanwhile, in recent news: Clinton’s campaign remains engulfed in the kind of scandal — stonewalling and lying about something as basic as her emails while secretary of state — that seems so typically, stupidly Washington. The EPA was caught polluting a river instead of protecting it. And the Associated Press reports the nuclear deal with Iran allows the Iranians to inspect some of their own suspected military sites.
Maybe this year’s anti-establishment streak shouldn’t be so surprising.