Before we begin discussion of Donald Trump, we must start with Kevin Williamson's epic burn from a few weeks ago, because it's the truest thing you've ever read:
Donald Trump may be the man America needs. Having been through four bankruptcies, the ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula is uniquely positioned to lead the most indebted organization in the history of the human race. The Trump conglomerate is the Argentina of limited-liability companies, having been in bankruptcy as recently as 2009. To be sure, a lot of companies went bankrupt around then. The Trump gang went bankrupt in 2004, too, and in 2001. Before that, Trump was in bankruptcy court back in 1991 when his Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City-the nation's first casino-cum-strip-club, an aesthetic crime against humanity that is tacky by the standards of Atlantic City-turned out to be such a loser that Trump could not make his debt payments.
But before you dismiss Trump entirely as an electoral proposal, let me drop two other truth bombs on you: In 1998 Norm Coleman, the Republican mayor of St. Paul and future U.S. senator, was running for governor against Skip Humphrey, a legacy Democrat who was serving as the state's attorney general. And in this race 773,713 people--that's more than three quarters of a million--voted not for Coleman or Humphrey but for a retired professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura. Who won the race and became governor.
Okay, but Minnesota is a weird place, not like the rest of America, right? In 1992, President George H. W. Bush--a war hero who'd served as ambassador to the U.N., director of the CIA, and vice president-faced off against the most gifted politician of the Baby Boom generation, Governor Bill Clinton. And 19,743,821 people voted for Ross Perot-a rich guy with no electoral experience who was so flaky that he dropped out of the race, then got back into it, while warning about vast conspiracies arrayed against him. Again: That's almost 20 million votes, which was good for 18.9 percent of the total. Which is to say, in a time of peace and relative prosperity (that is, relative to what we've had for the last seven years) 1-in-5 Americans looked at two substantive politicians and then decided to pull the lever for the crazy cartoon character.
What I'm trying to make clear is that while Donald Trump's prospects of either winning the GOP nomination or becoming the next president approach zero, there are an awful lot of people out there who have proven open to voting for non-viable fringe candidates. And if Donald Trump were to run as a third-party candidate and get even half of Ross Perot's numbers, then it is difficult to see how any Republican nominee could beat any Democratic nominee in 2016.
So before we go any further, consider: Donald Trump--the Donald Trump--holds in his hands something like veto power over the Republican quest to win the White House. Sit with that for a moment.
There are only two reasonable conclusions to be drawn from the Trump Contingency: (1) Democracy doesn't work and we all need to get behind Sweet Meteor of Death 2016; or (2) To the extent that Trump is standing in front of any sort of movement, that movement needs to be co-opted, not vanquished, if Republicans want to have a chance of victory this cycle.
If you want option #2-and I understand if you prefer #1-then you have to start by figuring out what Trump is selling that attracts voters. And this doesn't seem like rocket science.
In 2012, the entire Republican field was caught by surprise when it turned out that immigration was the defining issue of the primary campaign. Without anyone having noticed, immigration displaced abortion as the major litmus test for GOP candidates. And then, to show that 2012 wasn't an aberration, two years later an unknown, unfunded, econ professor bushwhacked Eric Cantor by 11 points in a Republican House primary in Virginia. His primary issue-indeed, just about his only issue-was immigration.
So Republican strategists (and their candidates) ought to understand that Republican voters care a lot about immigration. And yet, the attitude of the GOP establishment towards these folks seems to be, as Mickey Kaus jokes, they just "cling to their rage about immigration because they can't get what they really want: Low capital gains taxes."
What these voters want isn't a xenophobic nut who's going to bash immigrants-they want a candidate who can do five things:
* Embrace the immigrant heritage of America.
* Distinguish between legal and illegal immigration.
* Make the case that the rule of law still means something, no matter what John Roberts says.
* Articulate that whatever benefits immigration may have, it comes with costs, too, as we se in the murder of Kathryn Steinle.
* Explain that the simple logic of labor markets suggests that whatever we ultimately decide to do about immigration policy, the time to liberalize immigration is not when the real unemployment rate is (at the very least) north of 10 percent. Because when you add workers to an existing surplus of labor, wages will go down. If the people at the Chamber of Commerce, Facebook, and the Democratic National Committee want to embiggen the labor pool, the least they could do is wait until the employment market tightens and labor shortages are a constraint on growth. To insist on amnesty now isn't just bad economics. It's rent seeking by powerful interests.
A Republican who could do all of that and pick up free political points by, say, arguing that the entire idea of "sanctuary cities" is both a perversion of the rule of law and an incentive to disorder would go a long way to letting the air out of Trump's balloon.
And as a bonus, it would put Democrats on the defensive, too.
Donald Trump has the special kind of invulnerability that comes when you mix money with the incapacity for either reflection or shame. As such, he can't be beaten or cowed.
But the coalition that is supporting him right now could be adopted by a better politician. And if it isn't, the 2016 math gets pretty bleak.
This is an excerpt from Jonathan V. Last's weekly newsletter. Sign up for it here.