It was supposed to be the greatest Republican field of all time. The most highly-qualified, severely conservative, all-round competitive crop of candidates primary voters had ever seen. And they were supposed to be inspired.
Instead, they were Trumped.
The task has fallen to America's pundits to make sense of the mess. The prevailing wisdom has begun to settle on a very plausible explanation: Actually, the GOP field is lame and bogus. The governors have no foreign policy sense, we're told; the senators, no traction. Fiorina is a flash in the pan. Bush is a Bush. As National Review editor Rich Lowry put it in a sad denunciation of the back of the pack, "someone else will have to fill the screen" if Trump flames out — but "no one else has been big or vivid enough to do it."
True enough. But out here in Hollywood, it sure looks like the problem is more serious than a flat-footed field.
Let's be blunt. Today, a ton of Republicans don't want a hero.
They want an anti-hero — because America needs a gritty reboot.
Pundits mistake this for old-school populism. They watch Bernie Sanders pack them in while Hillary Clinton sucks wind and see shades of William Jennings Bryan. They watch Trump hoover up disgruntled Republicans and think, "Aha, Father Coughlin!"
But this isn't the populism of yore. Back then, regardless of their party ID, populists rallied around folk heroes — like the far-right Coughlin, the old-school liberal Bryan, or the actual-literal Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs.
Today we have no faith in political heroes. We don't want someone to deliver us, to lift us up. We want them to smash what's left of our dysfunctional world, beat down our intransigent foes, and leave us enough of a shot to sort out our lives amongst ourselves.
While the longing for an anti-hero is apparent on the left — hence the rise of Bernie Sanders — it's especially intense for Republicans. This marks the terminal stage of a long transformation.
Time and again, GOP primary voters have lashed out against the empty suits and mushy milquetoasts that the party establishment has thrown their way. Just ask Pat Buchanan, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, or Newt Gingrich. But that reflex, frustrated so many times, has given way to a deeper, more primal instinct.
So Scott Walker, who everyone wanted to be an anti-hero slathered in the blood of his enemies, has fizzled out because he wants to be heroic. Chris Christie, another would-be anti-hero, will never escape his Obama hug, the moment of sympathy that destroyed his credibility. Jeb Bush, neither hero nor anti-hero material, is just too cerebral. Even combative optimists like Carly Fiorina aren't scratching the itch.
But the critical case is Marco Rubio, a man about as traditionally heroic as Republican presidential candidates come. He might wind up winning the anti-Trump primary; he might unite every anti-Trump donor in the world. He may or may not know he's losing the contest between the hero vote and the anti-hero vote, but at least he knows that's the battle that matters. He's out on the trail saying so.
Explaining why he doesn't think Trump will be the nominee, he says the winner will "be someone that embraces the future, that understands the opportunities before us, that's optimistic but realistic about the challenges before us."
Although "people are angry," he says, Americans have "every reason to be optimistic about the future."
Many — oh so many — Republicans disagree. And so do many voters who aren't Republican.
They haven't given up on the future. They just know it's going to be darker than what they've been promised. They're not afraid; they know that with enough greatness and goodness, you can survive the darkness — eventually, even thrive.
It just takes a willingness to recognize how far we are from paradise.
Voters want a gritty reboot. Does any Republican know it — except Trump?