It’s not a particularly novel observation to note that Donald Trump’s campaign has relied on a lot of small "cons" — transparently cynical efforts to exploit a lack of public knowledge about the details of issues, compounded by mistrust of Establishment fact-checkers and naysayers. The best example is probably the hoary but still effective "eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse" explanation for how Trump will plug the many vast gaps in his fiscal plans. There’s also his classic shuck that putting a better deal-maker in the White House will solve most of the country’s problems, enabling him to push aside all sorts of real-life structural obstacles to quick-fix solutions. Trump seems to uncannily key his pronouncements to the superficially wary sensibilities of talk-radio listeners who are simultaneously wise to the conventional wisdom tricks but amazingly gullible to alternative explanations.
Still, Trump’s most important con is his biggest and best: the claim that anything that stands between him and the presidential nomination is itself a con job and the product of a “rigged system.” And the con has boosted his standing as the final primaries approach, while giving him an excellent backup plan if he falls short of the 1,237 bound delegates needed to guarantee him the nomination.
What makes Trump’s ploy devilishly clever is that he’s turning a campaign failure — the inability to keep up with Ted Cruz in the delegate-selection process that runs parallel to the primaries — into a grievance and then a strength: He is again standing up for the People against the machinations of the Powers That Be. In the Trump treatment, every delegate Cruz wins at a state convention is somehow "stolen" from Trump and the people who voted for him in the primaries. Carefully elided from this interpretation of events is the fact that none of this thieving and scheming by Cruz or others will matter at all if Trump does well enough in the remaining primaries to get to 1,237. The difficulty media sources have had in explaining this key fact has been central to the Trump con, while obscuring the equally key fact that those evil Establishment rules have actually given the Donald more delegates than his primary votes would justify (he’s only won 38 percent of the popular vote so far).
Lucky for Trump, his conspiracy-theory explanation of the forces arrayed against him coincide with the mainstream media’s own limitations and needs, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver recently pointed out:
It also helps that Trump’s system-is-rigged message is relatively simple and plays into the media’s master narrative of the Republican race as a conflict between the Republican base and the GOP “establishment.” The Republicans’ delegate selection rules, by contrast, require an attention to detail that narrative-driven stories about the Republican race can misconstrue.
No question about that.
The “system-is-rigged” message is proving itself to be adaptable to changing circumstances as well. The Cruz-Kasich “deal” to concentrate resources on different primaries is a completely banal and predictable development at this stage in the nominating process. But Trump has seamlessly incorporated it into his tale of powerful forces conspiring to rob him of a fair shot at the nomination. And most important of all, the Trump narrative of the race will be deployed forcefully if — and this remains perhaps the best bet — he finishes the primaries close to but not quite over the 1,237 threshold. The very idea of a contested convention will come under withering fire as a repudiation of Republican voters, even though voters will have made it possible by failing to produce a candidate with a majority of delegates or popular votes. Just yesterday Rush Limbaugh laid down the likely endgame:
Let’s say — just pretend here that all of these efforts that Ted Cruz is making to win on a second or third ballot, let’s skip forward and say that it happened, all right? Whew. First ballot, nobody gets 1,237. Go to second ballot, and all of this work that Cruz has done in securing delegates in his favor gives him 1,245 delegates on the second ballot. I don’t think anybody understands the blowback that would happen from the Trumpsters.
If that ever happens, we are gonna see a nuclear explosion like you’ve never seen before. Because if they think what’s happened now is cheating and rigging the game, with Trump leading everything and nobody even close to him throughout the entire primary process — and nobody gets closer than 300 delegates, and then somehow on the first ballot he doesn’t get to 1,237, maybe he gets to 1,150 — and they don’t let him have it, and they go to the second ballot and all this work that Cruz has done produces 1,250 and he wins it on the second ballot?
Holy smokes! The blowback that will happen then, the backlash? That will be the end of the Republican Party.
It’s not surprising that a consistent majority of Republicans, considerably larger than Trump’s following, doesn’t want to go there and is willing to give Trump a nomination he hasn’t quite earned in order to avoid it. All the stop-Trump scenarios we’ve been discussing since it became obvious no one would go to Cleveland with more delegates than Trump have depended on the united determination of anti-Trump Republicans to beat the mogul by any means consistent with the existing rules. Thanks to Trump’s Big Con, and an assist from the media, that determination may soon crumble.