Circus Maximus MMXVI: Hold me closer, tiny dancer

11 05 2016

So, a coupla’ months ago I wondered why those who saw the Republican party as dysfunctional didn’t think to connect this dysfunction to an inability for the party to ‘decide’ on an acceptable nominee.

Which is a long way of saying: why didn’t any of us see Trump coming?

Apparently, one guy did: Norm Ornstein.

I had focused for so long on the growing dysfunction inside the Republican Party, and I believed that its leaders had generated an awful lot of the anger out there. And eventually, I combined that with the set of polls that we began to see that showed 60 to 70 percent support for outsiders and insurgents.

He lays Tiny Hands Trump’s triumph squarely at the feet of Republican leaders, where it belongs:

[I]f you forced me to pick one factor explaining what’s happened, I would say this is a self-inflicted wound by Republican leaders.

Over many years, they’ve adopted strategies that have trivialized and delegitimized government. They were willing to play to a nativist element. And they tried to use, instead of stand up to, the apocalyptic visions and extremism of some cable television, talk radio, and other media outlets on the right.

And add to that, they’ve delegitimized President Obama, but they’ve failed to succeed with any of the promises they’ve made to their rank and file voters, or Tea Party adherents. So when I looked at that, my view was, “what makes you think, after all of these failures, that you’re going to have a group of compliant people who are just going to fall in line behind an establishment figure?”

He traces the problem back to Newt Gingrich and his efforts to tear down Congress; I’d guess the problem goes back at least to Reagan—“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”—if not further, but clearly the Republican establishment’s willingness to rip apart the establishment goes back a ways.

What’s the appropriate cliché, here? Came back to bite ’em in the ass? Fanned the flames of a fire that consumed them? Something something boomerang something?


When you basically move dramatically away from what we call the regular order, when you almost debase your own institutions — you’re gonna find an opening for somebody who’s never been a part of it and who can offer you very, very simplistic answers.

It’s not that I blame the GOPper bosses wholly for Trump’s popularity—I think he did hit on some kind of whacked-out beat that got a lot of people clapping—but that they couldn’t be bothered to take him out when the taking was good.

And now they—and we—are stuck with him. Sad!

Ornstein also kicks at our profession:

Political scientists in some ways, just like journalists, pursue false equivalence. They do not want to suggest anything flatly or that one party is to blame. There’s a kinda cynicism whenever you suggest something might be different than it was in the past. “Oh, no, it’s always the same.”


And there’s a herd mentality too, I think. People glom onto The Party Decides and you look like a fool if you say, “Well, no, that’s not right” — because everybody believes it! I don’t know if I would call this a black swan moment, but people’s unwillingness to take a risk of breaking from consensus or believing that it will come out differently than it has before is pervasive.

Yeah, I followed that pretty much down the line. In my defense, I’m a political theorist, not an Americanist—but that line could also be turned against me: why so willing to follow along?

And I (still) do follow Jonathan Bernstein‘s admonition that any major party candidate, by virtue of being a major party candidate, has a shot at winning the presidency. As Ornstein notes

We do know that straight-ticket voting has increased dramatically. This to me suggests we’re not gonna have a 45-state blowout like Goldwater faced, or a 49-state one like Mondale or McGovern had. You’re gonna start with some states and you’re gonna start with 45 percent of the votes. Most Republicans are gonna come back into the fold.

Yep. And, Oh god.

So what happens now?

11 03 2016

I’ve followed and enjoyed Jonathan Bernstein‘s disquisitions on American politics. I don’t always agree (his preference for the Madisonian presidential system, his views about money in politics), but he’s practical and open and good at linking to other political scientists.

He’s also been one of the leading proponents of The Party Decides thesis, which, to simplify matters immensely, argues that party insiders force discipline on the nominating process. I first reported on, then came to agree with, this notion, largely because what Bernstein wrote about it made sense.

Of course, “making sense” doesn’t equal “correct”, as we’re all seeing in the current contest, and which Bernstein admits:

bernstein tweet

So, this is a not-at-all-direct prelude to the question: why didn’t Bernstein or other political scientists (or I) see Trump coming?

Another piece: Bernstein has been arguing, for years, that the Republicans at the federal level have become dysfunctional and (institutionally) irresponsible. He’s noted their disinclination to negotiate on bills which relate to their priorities, their unwillingness to vote on nominees which they themselves support to bureaucratic positions, and their indulgence of fantastical rhetoric.

And ‘the party’ has either a) been fine with all of this or b) unable to do anything about it.

Given that, why would Trump be a surprise?

Bernstein has been hitting Trump hard on his ignorance of how government works (see, for example, here and here, as well as on Twitter), but given that Republicans in Congress don’t seem to care much about governance, is it really a shock that Republican voters would support a guy who doesn’t care either?

So, given that Republicans have been acting like/unable/unwilling to discipline the nutters for awhile, and that Donald Trump is not that much of an outlier in the party, is Trump’s rise indicative of a breakdown of the-party-decides model—because the party itself has broken down in some significant way—or, perhaps, that the party has decided he’ll do just fine?