For months, the 2016 presidential campaign has been slowly climbing the amusement park water slide. Debates, polls, press conferences. News stories. Talk radio rants. Blowhards on blogs.
Now, though, the race is entering its Verrückt stage — a high-speed plunge to the bottom of the ride. In just a few short weeks, voters will cast ballots and we’ll know a lot more about both major political parties and their likely presidential nominees.
We’ll also know whether Donald Trump’s Republican candidacy has been a real thing or just a mirage.
It’s tempting to see Trump’s popularity as unique, the one-time result of a splintered field and a diffuse media environment. To date, the New York businessman has cannily exploited a perfect storm of discontent and dysfunction to outpace his better-known and more-experienced rivals.
But that may not be the whole story. Trump’s support may be the latest incarnation of what legendary history professor Richard Hofstadter once called the “paranoid style” in American politics.
“American politics has always been an arena for angry minds,” Hofstadter wrote in 1964. “The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life.”
He then described a subset of American electorate — suspicious of power, fearful of change, obsessed with conspiracy and resistant to compromise.
“America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it,” he wrote.
He provided examples from America’s past: waves of anti-Catholicism, anti-Masonry and anti-Mormonism; populist concerns about international bankers; the writings of the left-wing press. Americans were once worried about the Bavarian Illuminati, Hofstadter said.
Today it’s Muslims, Mexicans, establishment politicians, university protesters, business and media elites.
Does that mean Trump’s supporters are actually paranoid? Of course not. But like their predecessors, they’re deeply distrustful of institutions that they think have failed them.
We have recent history with this. In 2008, Sarah Palin was asked to name a Supreme Court decision she disagreed with, other than Roe v. Wade. Her inability to do so brought disapproving clucks from the intelligentsia.
But millions of Americans had a different reaction: Enough with the smarty-pants gotcha journalism. We couldn’t answer that question either, they said. Sarah Palin is one of us.
That attitude is the foundation of Trump’s candidacy. In a recent debate he clearly stumbled when asked about America’s nuclear triad of land, sea and air weaponry. Elites thought the miscue would hurt his campaign. It did not, because his supporters didn’t see it as a mistake. He’s one of us.
In the next few weeks, we’ll see if that kind of support can win the Republican nomination for Donald Trump. If it does, his next test will come in November.