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It used to be that every four years, Donald Trump would make some kind of vague rumbling about maybe running for president as a radical centrist, and then everyone would take it seriously. Then Trump would back out, again, having secured his goal of making us all pay attention to him. Now that he’s quit that game for a different one. So it’s up to Michael Bloomberg to fill the gap I guess. He’s once again floating interest in a presidential run, not coincidentally right before the New Hampshire Primary. Does anyone care?

Whether it’s Bloomberg or someone else, if the general election match-up winds up being Trump vs. Sanders, there’s going to be a third-party centrist candidacy. It’s a natural opening, as such a match-up would amount to a double-rejection of party establishments, or alternatively a rejection of much of the bipartisan consensus points–trade, “entitlement reform,” endless war–that the public dislikes but is rarely given a choice to have a voice in. Still, there are some people who support this agenda and Bloomberg would undoubtedly put all of it front and center in his pitch. Whatever success you think he might have depends largely on your assumptions about the electorate. The view among many of our nation’s narrative-makers, if I had to boil it down, would be that Americans are tired of partisan politics, and are just waiting for politicians to reach across the aisle and work together. Under this view, a Bloomberg bid would be very successful. But a more reasonable view is that much of the American public has simply had it with the nation’s business and political elites, and that while this is expressing itself in different ways among Republicans and Democrats, there is a true appetite for fundamental change. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has had difficulties because she, like much of Washington, has no idea how to respond to this, and I’m not sure Michael Bloomberg would fare any better.

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trumpAs always, Josh Marshall is the only pundit you need to bother to read on Trump, and I wouldn’t disagree with any of this. But I would add that what Trump has pulled off in the last week or two has been masterful. Admittedly, turning a Cruz candidacy into an unpalatable risk viz. the natural born citizen language is more Cruz’s fault than anyone else’s brilliant strategy–knowing his ego, he almost certainly figured he was a legal expert and there wouldn’t be a problem there. But this was fatal arrogance, and one that Trump has exploited absolutely brilliantly–perfectly timed, and pushed without placing himself at much risk of it backfiring back onto him. At this point, it seems clear enough that Cruz peaked too early, and gave his enemies enough time to regroup and help to damage him. But it’s absolutely shocking that he didn’t even see this as a potential obstacle and seek out some actual expert advice. Events and strategy have come together in a big way for Trump. At this point, I would be surprised if he didn’t win Iowa decisively, along with New Hampshire next.

To be sure, if Cruz falls, Rubio will be primed to have that strong third place finish that the media (which very very very much wants Rubio to be the GOP candidate, for who knows what reason) will spin into an expectations-demolishing comeback. But I’m not so sure that’ll work. Expectations do matter, of course, and an unexpected second or even third place finish could very well boost a candidate’s stock. But a Trump win in Iowa would, in the greater sense, shatter expectations that exist even now, in spite of his strong polling. For months, we’ve been told that Trump’s lead is due to nonvoters, that his voters may not show up to caucus, that his support would wane as people began to pay attention, etc. Even now, one gets the sense that to many Republicans in the party structure, a Trump victory is unthinkable, that something must happen to prevent it. It’s the classic Gorky Park scenario, you know, you have no choice but to believe a lie if the lie is that you’ll escape. But if Cruz fades, the most likely one-on-one contest is going to be between Trump and likely New Hampshire second-placer John Kasich, which is not a contest I think Trump loses, frankly.

The big question now is whether Trump’s mastery of right-wing maneuvering has any applicability in a general election contest. Marshall is right that he’ll undoubtedly readjust his political platform after getting the nomination, perhaps radically. But it’s going to be very, very difficult for him to overcome the toxic first impressions that he made on the electorate. In any event, given how efficiently he ripped the spine out of Ted Cruz’s once formidable looking candidacy, I wouldn’t take him for granted one bit. He certainly has advantages that candidates don’t usually have, but make no mistake: he has earned this.

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Bernstein breaks it down, and finds little there. But the best part about it is sad Bill Kristol, who now resembles Dr. Frankenstein near the end of the book more than anything.
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Hard to believe, huh?

I think part of the Trump phenomenon that people aren’t getting–one that I think is massively responsible for his popularity and staying power–is that Donald Trump is a genuine right-winger. Allow me to explain. Most of what we call right-wingers in America are quite different from what goes for far-right around the world. Very rarely does this type of person include a devotion to minimal state/Austrian economics–Marine Le Pen is to the left of Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party on a number of issues, and Vladimir Putin has not only greatly increased spending on social programs during his presidency, but has refused to eliminate industrial subsidies of the sort that sustained working classes in the West until the 1980s, when right-wingers killed them off in the name of efficiency (even though those savings often wound up being a lot less than expected). But they’re not leftists by any means–genuine Marxism has an internationalist component and envisions some kind of solidarity not only between the races and genders but among working classes of different nations. The far-rightist typically wants more socialism for the dominant group, and less of it for minority groups, coupled with vilification of those minority groups. It’s a natural application of tribalism and hierarchical thinking. Trump’s not calling for new social programs for white folks, not that I know of. But the overall outline is very familiar. (Incidentally, I have a strong belief that the UKIP in Britain has been a conspicuous failure in this trend precisely because it doesn’t follow this paradigm–it’s basically just a more extreme version of Toryism, and thus has been unable to compete successfully in the deindustrialized North, often believed to be fertile ground for such an appeal.)

It’s been widely noted that today’s far-rightist–particularly in Europe–is very often a former left-winger who lost their job and can’t find another one. The far right has become quite good over there at convincing these folks that they have the same enemies as they do, which is sometimes true. The late Tony Judt made this point very well in his recent book. There’s a fundamental conflict between the essentially nationless, laissez-faire capitalist model that Republicans champion and the general nationalism they employ to sell it, and people whose jobs were wiped out due to that capitalism wind up being quite receptive to purely nationalist arguments. Trump is unusually well suited to make this argument–as a famous businessman he doesn’t seriously have to worry about being called anticapitalist when he decries neoliberal trade deals and benefit cuts that tend to have some significant bipartisan support. The only real time we saw something like this before was when Pat Buchanan made his presidential runs in the 1990s–notably right after the first big wave of cataclysmic job losses due to globalization. Now Trump is moving the ball forward in the shadow of a devastating recession and anemic recovery. The Republicans’ ability to hold back this sort of right-wingery has been due primarily to very zealous ideological enforcement. And despite leftists’ (including my own) incredulity, quite a few “normal” people actually do want the GOP’s economic agenda, it must be admitted. But Buchanan ran (a) against an incumbent president, and then (b) in 1996, during an economic boom. Neither of those applies now. It’s the most fertile ground ever for real right-wingery in America. And given recent history, it only stands to get better.

So if you wonder why the Republican Party is so desperate to stop Trump, this is why. It’s not because he’s making it awkward for them on some issues and saying the quiet parts loud. It’s because he threatens the plutocrats’ control over the party they recently bought on an ideological level. And even if he doesn’t get the nomination, if he’s able to win some amount of success, there’ll be more like him. But absent good jobs appearing for people who don’t live in coastal metropolises, there doesn’t seem much to stop it in the long run. A reprise of Clinton-era prosperity seems unlikely, in large part thanks to some of the bills Clinton chose to sign. But this is getting off topic a bit. Trump is a real right-winger. This is why he’s doing well. That’s all.

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I can generally understand why the media has to report it when Trump calls for crazy things like “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” or says things like “the truth is that men are tired of liberty.” (Oops, that last one was someone else.) But really, newspeople?  

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For all I know, Marco Rubio will win the Republican nomination easily just like the poli sci people tell us. That’s certainly a possibility that I can’t deny, and a lot of smart people who I respect hold it. But I feel like this is sort of an exercise in avoiding Ockham’s Razor. If Rubio flops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina–all states I don’t think he’s going to be great in–then I think he loses the nomination. Nobody gives a shit about whether he wins the Florida primary–hell, Gingrich managed to win the Georgia primary in 2012 even after his campaign fell completely apart. Maybe if he scores a close second or something the media will boost him just like they have after every debate he’s “aced” that did nothing to his support. But I don’t know if that’ll matter since getting the most favorable MSM coverage of any Republican candidate hasn’t gotten Rubio any closer to the nomination, just as getting the worst hasn’t gotten Hillary any further away from hers.

The notion that some critical mass of Republicans will at some point “tune in” and that’ll mean the end for Trump ignores the inconvenient fact that they, um, have been tuning in like crazy, not to mention that Trump’s durable polling shows that this is not a field where unformed opinions and random fancies are running amok a la 2012. (I doubt that many people combined had ever even watched FOX Business before!) And the big problem the establishment has (particularly with Cruz, and also with Trump in some respects) is that these are guys who are taking the establishment’s own ideas to their natural conclusions, rather than going only so far but holding back so as to avoid political damage. Cruz’s 2013 shutdown may have been bad for the Republican Party, but the logic of it was different from the Boehner-McConnell refusenik strategy only in degree, not in kind. And Trump’s rhetoric on let’s just say immigration is much the same–there’s no wink-and-a-nod to it, but the party whose last leader advocated self-deportation is hardly alien to this type of thinking, if not this particular expression of it. This is why attacking Trump as too liberal hasn’t worked and likely won’t work–Trump’s current “liberalism” mainly consists of wedge issues where the elites disagree with the base, and the thrust of his argument builds upon the Limbaugh/Ailes playbook perfectly. They don’t like this at all, but that they seemingly don’t understand what is happening makes me skeptical that they’ll be successful.

It’s a bit more complicated with Trump but the reason why Republicans hate Cruz isn’t because he’s an asshole–he’s hardly alone there. (Assholery being present in both parties, of course, though only celebrated in one.) It’s because Cruz takes their strategy beyond where they want it to go. He’s both more and less cynical than they are at the same time–Cruz knows on some level that a government shutdown hurts the party, but the party wants to use the “Obama usurper” meme for firing up the rubes up until the point that it harms them. Cruz blows past that point, as does Trump in some ways, which can be either a cynical exploitation for personal gain or an honest, unhedged expression of honesty, depending on your perspective. It is, in a way, a parallel to the pragmatism vs. purity debates on the left. Big difference is that way more people on the right seem interested in the purer options (Trump, Carson, Cruz) than do people on the left (Sanders, largely), just to judge by poll numbers.

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It isn’t being said much, but while the Republican Party deserves the lion’s share of credit/blame/mockery for creating Donald Trump–“grown-up establishment” just as much as the Bircher types, if not moreso–the media deserves a significant amount of it as well. There’s the obvious sense in which it’s true: the media has loved giving coverage for decades to a man who would, under normal circumstances, be a local celebrity at best, best known for ruining Atlantic City, having a ridiculous outsized personality, and erecting a bunch of buildings that nobody likes. But they asked what he thought about issues. They patronized his presidential non-runs. And the coverage they gave him at the outset of his current campaign turned him from a guy with terrible approvals into a very strong Republican contender. But apart and aside from that, Trump’s just playing the incentives of the system as well as anyone. Sure, he’ll get criticism from some quarters of the media for making shit up about Muslims cheering about 9/11. But most outlets will print his claims in a larger size font than any criticism. Headlines like “Trump Wrong About 9/11 Claims” might not be so great for Trump (or they might be), but come on, we’re not going to see those. Trump knows that he can basically say anything he wants and at most he’ll have to deal with a little bit of “opinions differ” stuff, while he will get to set the emphasis thoroughly. Because the media buys so thoroughly into a very specific notion of civility, it cannot help but be complicit in turning itself into a vehicle for untruth, and it clearly has no idea how to stop:

At least in the eyes of the political press, Trump is by far the campaign’s worst offender when it comes to exaggerations and falsehoods. According to fact-checking project Politifact, Trump has so far clocked in with 41 percent of his statements rated as “false” and 21 percent as the most egregious level, “Pants on Fire.”

He’s also still leading Republican primary polls.

More mild untruths are hardly limited to one candidate, or one party, either.

Politifact rates Trump’s closest contender, Ben Carson, as having 43 percent of his assertions rated “false” and 13 percent rated as “Pants on Fire.”

For Hillary Clinton, it’s 11 percent false and 1 percent “Pants on Fire,” although she’s also racked up 16 percent of statements dubbed the insidious “mostly false.”

So taking Politifact’s ratings arguendo, Trump and Carson lie almost half the time, Clinton a little over one tenth of the time, but hey, no party is to blame here, clearly! One twentieth the “pants on fire” whoppers of Trump, but hey, she has some “mostly false” (i.e. less untrue) claims too! Admittedly, not as much as Trump and Carson’s outright lies, but I put “insidious” in there, so nobody can suspect me of being biased! (Except, spoiler alert, they’re definitely going to, because conservatives’ belief in media bias is a first principle, inherently believed among the masses and furthermore propping up a multi-billion dollar entertainment venture.) Nobody’s to blame because everybody’s guilty! That this bit of CYA comes before a long list of data points about the public’s mistrust of the media makes it even more delicious. I don’t think that Joe Sixpack has a sophisticated view of how the media has failed to point out the truth, but I think he understands overall that people are being wrongly protected and misinformation is being aggressively pushed. Which is true.

Also, relatedly, Steve Doocy insists that he saw Muslims cheering on 9/11 too. Remember when conservatives were obsessed with George Orwell for a minute? Oh, the irony!

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