Donald Trump is right where he wants to be—alone, and at the center of it all.
The Wall Street Journal
October 13, 2016
The 2016 presidential election feels like a 1930s Hollywood movie about people lost in a jungle. No, not “ King Kong.” The one in which lost souls slog and sweat through a swamp, attacked by bugs, cobwebs and things falling out of the trees. Inevitably there’s a moment when one of the party, gripped by fever, abandons the group and heads deeper into the swamp alone.
Donald Trump is now a party of one. It’s better that way.
Never forget that Donald Trump is a celebrity. He called his show “The Celebrity Apprentice” and stocked it with celebrities because he saw that America’s appetite for fame had become limitless.
Mr. Trump, however, was not just one of the dime-a-dozen celebrities who pile up like tumbleweeds on reality TV. Donald Trump was—and remains—a mega-celebrity. He exists in the upper atmosphere of fame where people are known by one name: Beyoncé, Gaga, Tiger, Trump.
Defining Mr. Trump as a celebrity is not intended as denigration. It is an admission of some realities about him that the political culture never quite recognized.
At some point in the upward spiral, whether they wish it or not, celebrities separate from everyone else. They are powerful, charismatic, often petulant loners.
One of the reigning ideas in political science is that presidential candidates emerge from an array of forces—politicians, activists, donors—who ultimately come together around an individual who is best able to carry the party flag of Republican or Democrat.
It was never in the cards that Donald Trump, an utterly unique phenomenon, would integrate his interests with the interests of the Republican Party. The two simply don’t inhabit the same space.
“It is so nice that the shackles have been taken off me,” he tweeted, “and I can now fight for America the way I want to.” Take his word for it: Donald Trump is where he wants to be—alone, the center of it all, a party of one.
It is almost surely true that the GOP’s three principal figures—Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell—always understood this. But there was no chance—none—that any would ever admit that Mr. Trump was running as an independent candidate inside the formal structure of the Republican Party. Mr. Trump’s 45% plurality in the primaries—and the possibility that some of them might defect from the party’s candidates—guaranteed that this obvious reality could never go public.
This meant that nearly all other Republican candidates would have to survive in a universe different than Donald Trump’s. From the day Mr. Trump secured the nomination, there was never much chance that he would integrate his personal fame, for example, with the pedestrian daily grind and needs of a Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire or Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.
Whether they or the other at-risk candidates— Richard Burr, Rob Portman, Ron Johnson or Mark Kirk—should have been pro-Trump or anti-Trump is at this point a secondary matter to the practical realities of their own campaigns.
Donald Trump passes in and out of their states like a visiting meteor. It’s an awesome event, but there’s nothing they can do but gape, and get back to work inside the smaller orbit of a North Carolina or Wisconsin.
Many Trump supporters are currently in a rage because these candidates won’t merely attach themselves to Mr. Trump’s candidacy. But that is hard to do when every few days the mercurial Mr. Trump is producing a personal October surprise or midcourse policy correction.
Some may call this genius. It still means that these candidates, rather than conduct a consistent campaign of their own, must answer reporters’ questions about every new variable or revelation that is wholly idiosyncratic to Mr. Trump. It’s impossible.
The question now is whether Republican voters and Mr. Trump’s supporters can distinguish between his unique candidacy and everything else. In short: Forget unity and live with the reality before everyone’s eyes.
His most dedicated supporters either will stay aloft to share in his go-it-alone, in-your-face triumph, or fall to earth with him. But refusing to vote for at-risk Republican incumbents because of insufficient Trump loyalty or disdain for his candidacy is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Just two years ago, voters sent arguably the strongest class to the U.S. Senate in a generation, including Tom Cotton, Cory Gardner, Joni Ernst, Ben Sasse and Dan Sullivan. Now many of these same voters are threatening to tell them: Drop dead under the thumbs of Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi. The Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA, is spending money on congressional races to achieve precisely that.
As to relaunching the past year’s populism project for 2020, that’s a pipe dream if Democrats win it all by default. Full progressive government control, including a compliant Supreme Court, will impose so many political constraints, notably on fundraising, that the populists will have to head into the woods with the Bundy family.
Let Trump be Trump. Enjoy the ride. But Republican and independent voters have to figure out where the limits lie.
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