Why Donald Trump's ham-fisted incompetence is such a winning combo for the Republican Party
Could a politically competent Trump have already locked up the Republican nomination? Probably not.
Despite his brand as a ruthless businessman whose greed borders on the sociopathic, it's becoming clear that Donald Trump couldn't organize his way out of a wet paper sack.
After a deluge of truly abysmal headlines, he has tripped himself up yet again on the way to the Republican nomination, as poor logistics lost him multiple delegates in five states over the weekend. His own kids didn't even realize they had to change their New York party registration last October in order to be able to vote Trump in the primary on April 19. Sad!
Ted Cruz, with his carefully organized army of staring ideologues, is the natural beneficiary of Trump missteps, and has gathered most of the lost delegates. Of course, if Trump had even a modicum of political competence, he would have long since locked up the nomination. Just look at this tidbit from the weekend caucuses: "The frontrunner's advisers repeatedly instructed supporters to vote for the wrong candidates — distributing the incorrect delegate numbers to supporters," Time reports.
Still, it's hard to imagine a politically competent Trump who would also have run the same campaign that launched him to the front of the pack, where he still remains, despite the recent flailing. It's a good demonstration of why nobody can lock up this primary.
Trump soared to frontrunner status by exploiting the fact that the GOP base has, for years, been running on the political equivalent of solvent abuse. Angry, resentful, and paranoid, the conservative movement has responded to inconvenient politics or facts with sheer denial or an enraged doubling-down. Climate change going to drown half of America's coastal cities? It must be a conspiracy cooked up by all those scientists out to get that grant money. Got creamed among Latinos in the presidential election of 2012? To Hades with elite attempts to pass immigration reform as an unavoidable compromise, and primary some major supporters for good measure.
Trump first got into major national politics on the back of the conspiracy theory that President Obama wasn't really born in the United States. (Obama himself completely humiliated Trump for this at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, which reportedly was the spark for Trump to run for president.) During the primary, he has taken every Republican bad habit — every plausibly-deniable racist dogwhistle, every game of footsie with rancid demagogues, every piece of crank economics or pseudoscience — and made them overt slogans painted in 20-foot-tall letters.
As a strategy to win the Republican primary, such tactics combine extremely well with Trump's spider sense for his audience's worst instincts and his absolute genius at manipulating TV media to get himself free coverage.
The rest of the primary field has been unable to mount a serious challenge despite being implicated in exactly the same stuff, just to a lesser degree. If Trump's tax plan is total garbage (which it is), Rubio's and Cruz's were no less so. His signature immigration policy of "huge wall plus deport the brown people" is bonkers, but rooted in decades of conservative anti-immigrant hysteria. And you can draw a straight line to Trump's "ban Muslims" idea from many previous episodes of whipped-up anti-Muslim bigotry.
But it turns out that such a strategy means absolutely obliterating one's standing among the broader population. If nominated, Trump would very likely be the least popular major party nominee since the advent of modern polling. Virtually any Democratic nominee would be the heavy favorite against him.
And that illustrates why traditional national Republican candidates wanting to leverage white racism for electoral advantage have used the dogwhistle instead of an actual whistle. Without plausible deniability, you're going to turn out like Strom Thurmond in 1948. Only Trump, with his unmerited arrogance and manifest ignorance of basic political mechanisms, is dumb enough to try it.
But as a primary strategy, it's successful enough that the only actual politician to pose a serious challenge to Trump, Ted Cruz, is having to scramble to pick up all the scraps he can find — and Cruz is similar enough to Trump that the party is still fantasizing about nominating someone else. Who knows, it might even work. But it'd be simpler to prevent the party from being eaten by galloping nonsense in the first place.