In a Washington Post poll from just four days ago, Donald Trump had nearly double the support of his two leading competitors.
Serious political commentators see the Donald as a side show, a troll, a clown who knows how to distract the audience from what's going on in the main ring of the circus. They argue that Donald knows how to tell voters what they want to hear, isn't seriously dealing with real policy issues, and is thus not a serious candidate. The theory behind this misses something, though. It assumes that the other candidates are more serious.
Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, is second in this poll. Is he a serious candidate? Scott did not complete his bachelors degree and argues that such a degree ought not to be a requirement for teaching in public schools. This would hardly be a serious policy proposal in 1915, much less 2015.
Jeb Bush is next in the polls. Beyond the fact that Jeb doesn't actually seem to have revised his worldview or policy proposals based on his big brother's disastrous results, his "boldest" proposal so far is 4% GDP growth. "There is no excuse" for GDP growth lower than that, he says. This might be an incredibly subtle slam of his father and brother (who each presided over GDP growth of about 2%). What it is not is a serious policy proposal. Not only has GDP growth of over 4% never occurred throughout the whole of anyone's presidential administration (Clinton came closest but even he and Reagan did not have that kind of luck for long), but more importantly, Jeb is not actually making any policy proposals that would drive such growth. This is an important point that gets completely glossed over: a goal without a plan is a kind of fiction. Jeb offers no stunning insight into what flaw was made by each of the previous 43 presidents. He just says that he can do better. Than all of them. Every president in history is less able than Jeb. And we're to take this seriously?
Walker and Bush are considered serious candidates but it is not clear why. They are telling voters what they want to hear and they're not starting with facts (global temps are rising, for instance, as is income and wealth inequality). They are adept at politics even if they're poor at policy. How is this different from Trump?
Donald Trump is not a crasser version of many of the other GOP candidates. He's a better version of them. His outrageous claims are more interesting, said with more conviction and sincerity, and just as free from fact or nuance. He talks about Mexicans as rapists and criminals but is his distortion of facts all that different from the mainstream GOP? An article of faith among Republicans is that illegal immigration is a growing problem. The fact is that the number of illegal immigrants has been dropping since its peak in 2007. It's true that suggesting the Mexicans coming north are rapists is more offensive than suggesting that a growing number of illegal immigrants are coming from Mexico. It's not true that either shows much regard for reality.
Starting with the Bush Cheney administration under Karl Rove's guidance, the Republican Party showed its willingness to subordinate good policy to good politics. The Iraq war was a policy disaster but it helped with W.'s re-election. Great politics don't always translate into great policy. Donald Trump is not an aberration from the Karl Rove model. Instead, he is its natural outcome. If the Republican Party had serious conservative candidates like, say, the UK's Prime Minister David Cameron, they'd be right to take offense at Donald Trump's lead in the polls. Instead they have candidates who can't admit that economic policy might require more subtly than another round of tax cuts or that 98% of scientists might understand climate change better than talk show hosts. Once you choose to go down a path that shows a disregard for expert opinion and instead relies on gut instincts, you're heading down the path towards a Donald Trump. And getting that much closer to becoming to the 21st century what the Whigs were to the 19th century.