Why did almost everybody fail to predict Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries? Nate Silver blames the news media, disorganized Republican elites, and the surprising appeal of cultural grievance. Nate Cohn lists a number of factors, from the unusually large candidate field to the friendly calendar. Jim Rutenberg thinks journalism strayed too far from good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. Justin Wolfers zeroes in on Condorcet’s paradox. Here’s the factor I think everybody missed: The Republican Party turns out to be filled with idiots. Far more of them than anybody expected.
The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicts a future in which Americans have grown progressively dumber, and eventually elect as president of the United States a professional wrestler, who caters demagogically to their nationalistic impulses and ignorance of science. Only because the film took place in an imaginary world was it possible to straightforwardly equate a political choice with a lack of intelligence. In the actual world, the bounds of taste and deference to (small-d) democratic outcomes make it gauche to do so. But the dynamic imagined in Idiocracy has obviously transpired, down to the election of a figure from pro wrestling:
While it’s impolite and politically counterproductive, if we want to accurately identify the analytic error that caused so many of us to dismiss Trump, we must return to the idiocy question. The particular idiocy involves both the party’s elites and its voters. The failures of the elites have been the source of analysis for months now. Republican insiders and donors failed to grasp the severity of the threat Trump posed to their party, many of them rallied behind obviously doomed legacy candidate Jeb Bush, or they used ineffectual messages when they did attack Trump. Or, most of all, they simply deluded themselves about the dangers he posed rather than face up to them. I never believed party insiders could fully dictate the outcome of the nomination, but I did expect them to be able to block a wildly unacceptable candidate, and they proved surprisingly inept even in the face of extreme peril to their collective self-interest.
Then there are the voters, whose behavior provided the largest surprise. It was simply impossible for me to believe that Republican voters would nominate an obvious buffoon. Everything about Trump is a joke. His orange makeup and ridiculous hair, his reality-television persona, his insult comedy and overt bragging — they are neon-bright signs that he is not (to use a widely employed term) “presidential.” Trump did not even seem to be an especially effective demagogue. He is not eloquent, not even in a homespun way. He stumbles on his phrases, repeats himself over and over, and his speeches consist of bragging and recitation of polling results so dull and digressive his audience often heads for the exits well before the conclusion.
In the previous election cycle, joke candidates like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann briefly caught the fancy of Republican voters but collapsed in the face of scrutiny. Republicans did rally around Sarah Palin after her vice-presidential selection was unveiled, but eventually her lack of qualifications became so impossible to deny that she didn’t even bother running in 2012. It was natural to expect a similar collapse from Trump, who cut an even more absurd figure (and certainly carried more ideological baggage on issues like abortion, health care, past support for Democratic candidates, and many other things).
Unlike Bachmann or Cain, Trump had an even weaker grasp on intro-level Republican dogma, instead ranting like a drunk on a bar stool (“Bomb the shit out of ISIS!”). In debates, rather than use the standard tactic of mouthing pabulum that sounded vaguely like a substantive response before pivoting to his preferred message, he dispensed with the pabulum altogether, relying instead on vague, repetitive bragging and grade-school-level personal insults of his opponents. He puts down his opponents’ beauty or their height, or simply smirks at them. His appeal operates not at a low intellectual level but at a sub-intellectual level.
Trump University is a business venture that seems to have relied on a business model of fraud — exploiting an asymmetry of information between the operators of the business and its customers, allowing the former to take advantage of the latter. The Trump candidacy, though its fraud is more transparent, operates along roughly similar lines. Its premise is a customer base that lacks sophistication and can be manipulated with gut-level appeals. In their hearts, I think most anti-Trump Republicans agree with me on this.
Most voters don’t follow politics and policy for a living, and it’s understandable that they would often fall for arguments based on faulty numbers or a misreading of history. But a figure like Trump is of a completely different cast than the usual political slickster. He is several orders of magnitude more clownish and uninformed than the dumbest major-party nominee I’ve ever seen before. (That would be George W. Bush.) As low as my estimation of the intelligence of the Republican electorate may be, I did not think enough of them would be dumb enough to buy his act. And, yes, I do believe that to watch Donald Trump and see a qualified and plausible president, you probably have some kind of mental shortcoming. As many fellow Republicans have pointed out, Donald Trump is a con man. What I failed to realize — and, I believe, what so many others failed to realize, though they have reasons not to say so — is just how easily so many Republicans are duped.
Now Watch: Donald Trump Had A Disastrous 1988