America has been obsessing over Donald Trump and his approach to politics all summer. But most of the media and commentariat still miss the point. The Trump insurgence is real, and it's meaningful — but it's not really about Trump.
That's one of the lessons I was reminded of when I attended the annual RedState Gathering conference in Atlanta this weekend. (Full disclosure: RedState is owned by Salem Media Group, which also owns Hot Air, the conservative website that employs me). Over the past several years, the Gathering has gained significant influence. Its attendance has expanded to nearly 1,000 conservative activists from around the country. This year, the conference was held the same weekend that the Iowa Republican Party had scheduled its Ames Straw Poll. The presidential contenders chose to come to Atlanta rather than Iowa, and the quadrennial straw poll faded into oblivion.
Originally, 10 of the GOP presidential contenders were scheduled to speak at the RedState conference, but in the end, only nine did. As you've surely heard by now, event organizer Erick Erickson withdrew the invitation to Donald Trump after the GOP frontrunner charged that Megyn Kelly aggressively questioned him at last week's debate because she had "blood coming out of her wherever."
It's too bad for Trump — he would have found himself right at home at the Gathering. The conference opened with a debate party on Thursday night, and the activists cheered Trump's remarks, especially in the first hour. That included his refusal to rule out a third-party or independent bid. Indeed, the RedState crowd never grew hostile to Trump, although it did at times with other candidates, especially Jeb Bush.
After the disinvitation, the activists at the Gathering split on the Trump issue. The conference had sold out before Trump was announced as a speaker, so it's not as if people had come specifically for Trump. But a good number of attendees were disappointed at the cancellation nonetheless. Erickson offered refunds to those who wanted out, but in the end, only 12 people demanded their money back. The room remained packed all the way through the last presidential contender to speak at the conference: Scott Walker.
But here's what stuck with me: Many Beltway pundits assumed that Trump's "blood" remark would be a crash-and-burn moment. They clearly have a lot to learn about the conservative voters who will ultimately make that decision. While many of them understood and agreed with the unvitation in the immediate aftermath of Trump's attack on Kelly, no one that I spoke to at the RedState event had sworn him off as a candidate. These were not rabid Trump backers unwilling to tolerate criticism of a personal hero, but conservatives frustrated by a party that they feel has stopped listening to them, and largely talks over them. Many of these conservative activists see Trump as a man who breaks that pattern. They want to send a message to the GOP and force the party to pay attention to its base voters.
They aren't alone, either. A similar dynamic has played out on the other side of the aisle. Hillary Clinton came into the race not just as a favorite, but as the only realistic option for Democrats. The Clinton team had made sure of that, packaging her as inevitable and locking up the majority of the party's establishment donors. Yet the former secretary of state, the first woman in either party to seriously contend for the nomination, could barely fill her "reboot" event in June on New York City's Roosevelt Island. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders — who isn't even registered as a Democrat — has 28,000 people cramming into venues to hear him speak. One of these two contenders has become a rock star, and it's not establishment favorite Hillary Clinton.
Pittsburgh Tribune Review's Salena Zito writes, "Americans keep sending a message that politicians, experts, and some in the media keep misreading." Voters aren't interested in the electability of Sanders, or in the antics of Trump, but in the much-needed disruptive impact they have on establishment politics. Americans of all ideologies have grown tired of our two-party system's top-down political structure and messaging, which has left vast swaths of voters feeling disenfranchised. These activists and voters have no incentive to work within a political structure that marginalizes them.
Candidates like Trump might be unserious or even clownish to the media and political analysts, but the large number of people who latch onto them as a vehicle for their frustration are not. This populist impulse on both sides of the aisle threatens to derail the two-party system. Unless the leadership in both organizations starts paying more attention to voters than the status quo which those voters are rejecting — and finding leaders in anyone who can give vent to their frustration — they may be the authors of their own demise.
Trump isn't the problem. He's just the symptom.