Donald Trump Is the New Ron Paul
I spent yesterday from 5 p.m. to midnight watching Republican presidential candidates debate each other -- well, mostly watching them give brief answers to predetermined questions. The second debate, aka The Big Kid's Table, was the best moderated debate I've ever seen, with serious, tough questions that targeted the weakest points of the men answering them. The questions gathered from Facebook were sillier, but provided great enjoyment for our intrepid band of debate-watchers, who were a mite fatigued after hours of talking points.
For me, the high point came when Donald Trump announced that he had made a donation to Hillary Clinton in order to ... get her to come to his wedding. Where to begin with such a statement? I have known brides and bridegrooms who cherished a vulgar belief that weddings have a three-figure admission fee, in cash or kind. But outside of romantic comedies, I have never heard of an American wedding in which the payments ran the other way. Trump touts himself as a dealmaker, but if this is an example of his negotiating prowess, do you really want him in charge of your international treaties? "I'm afraid I won't even consider withdrawing our troops from your border unless you also allow me to give you a billion dollars, a weekend for two at the Maui Hilton, and a personal guided tour of the White House!"
When I pointed this out on Twitter, a Trump fan of indeterminate sincerity tweeted back "Wake ... up, sheeple!"
How did this man get onto the stage? And how can we get him off, given the apparent passion of his base, who flood online polls with support for The Donald? He and Bernie Sanders are giving me flashbacks to those heady days of 2007, when a rash mention of Ron Paul's name in a column, much less criticizing his somewhat tenuous grasp on monetary economics, was good for hundreds of comments and emails, assuring you that Dr. Paul was going to be the next president of the United States because he was FINALLY offering Americans a REAL ALTERNATIVE. (Ron Paul supporters favored ALL CAPS so that you would UNDERSTAND that they were SERIOUS ABOUT CHANGE, or perhaps because the RON PAUL COMMEMORATIVE KEYBOARDS they had bought had some sort of TERRIBLE MALFUNCTION.)
Donald Trump is not going to be president. Bernie Sanders is also not going to be president. Their appeal to their supporters is precisely the reason they are not going to be president. Every few years, a large number of Americans need to learn the same lesson: The reason you don't hear the solutions that you want coming from the boring, scripted, mainstream politicians who get elected is that the solutions that you want do not appeal to the majority of your fellow countrymen.
You could think of an elected politician as a little bit like Applebee's, or Olive Garden, or TGI Fridays, or [insert ubiquitous restaurant chain here]. The food at these places is not horrifying. It's fine: bland, familiar, and heavily reliant on fat, salt and sugar rather than innovative flavor combinations to tickle your tastebuds. Luckily, salt, fat, and sugar are tasty, so pretty much anyone in the country can walk into one of these restaurants and find something to eat. But no one in history has ever walked out of one saying "Finally, a real alternative to the same old sweet, fatty, salty sameness! Finally, a restaurateur who has the courage to offer us radical change in our menus, and flavors we've never tasted before!"
Now, there is a market for that kind of restaurant. It consists of a small number of educated people living in urban areas. You can make a decent living catering to their tastes with your new jalapeno-marshmallow-crusted wallaby napoleon with a side of deep-fried rhubarb-infused lard.
What you cannot do is get the majority of Americans to eat there. If you want a mass market -- and it's hard to get elected to national office with just the hipster vote, or even the Celebrity Apprentice vote -- then your menu options need to center on the conventional, the inoffensive, and the bland. Because when you're dealing with a lot of people of varying tastes, you have to be at least as worried about driving people away as you do about pleasing them.
Donald Trump's appeal seems to be largely that he will say any old thing that pops into his head. And for a sizable segment of the population, which is sick of being shushed by their self-appointed betters in the coastal corridors, that's refreshing. Every time the chattering classes go into paroxysms about Trump's latest outburst, that merely heightens his appeal, in the same way the chattering classes sometimes enjoy not-so-appealing foodstuffs precisely because the folks back in Peoria would hate it. Ultimately, however, this is a bad reason to elect someone president -- sort of like marrying a deadbeat alcoholic with commitment issues because your ex-wife hates her.
And when we move beyond two people making a disastrous mistake, and try to get 100 million or so other people to jump on board, it's not merely unwise, but impossible. As Joe Scarborough remarked during the last round of oversubscribed GOP primaries, "The Republican Party does not nominate crazy." They may flirt with crazy. But when it's time to settle down, they pick the boring, middle-of-the-road candidate that they can bring home to the folks in Peoria ... and Atlanta ... and Cleveland ... and Portsmouth. So do the Democrats. Because ultimately, they want their guy in the Oval Office more than they want an authentic, election-losing alternative to the status quo.
Like many Americans, I enjoyed the Trump antics last night. There's nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong with believing that this man might actually become president. I mean ... wake up, sheeple.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Megan McArdle at firstname.lastname@example.org
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