Last month we were told that our pass-the-popcorn moment – I mean, our long national nightmare – was finally over: Presidential candidate Donald Trump would implode now that he had dared to question Republican Senator John McCain’s heroism.
But lo and behold, he’s still hanging on to front-runner status for the Republican nomination. How is that possible?
The short answer is that the inside-the-Beltway crowd – not for the first time – confused its own perceptions with those of actual voters.
Inside the Village, Mr. McCain is a sacred figure. After all these years of being a conventional ideologue, he is still perceived as McCain the Maverick. And despite his warmongering, he’s still considered a wise man when it comes to national security, and he is a near-constant presence on the Sunday talk shows. So the villagers expected everyone to recoil in horror when Mr. Trump ridiculed Mr. McCain’s war record – you’re only supposed to do that to Democrats.
But the Republican base really doesn’t care very much. Whatever they may say, its members aren’t all that impressed by military heroism. It’s not just the treatment of John Kerry when he was running for president – think about how little Republican voters seemed to care when we killed Osama bin Laden.
And they really, really don’t care about some old guy who lost an election.
Mr. Trump surely hurt himself a bit with his recent attack on Mr. McCain, but he still embodies the base’s id in a way that the Village doesn’t seem to understand.
Not surprisingly, Talking Points Memo’s Rick Perlstein, our foremost expert on the rise of movement conservatism, has the best take so far on the Trump phenomenon.
As Mr. Perlstein says, nobody should be surprised to find that there are a lot of Republicans who are furious and won’t take it any more: “This is important: Conservatism is like bigotry whack-a-mole,” he wrote recently. “The quantity of hatred, best I can tell from 17 years of close study of 60 years of right-wing history, remains the same. Removing the flag of the Confederacy, raising the flag of immigrant hating: The former doesn’t spell some new Jerusalem of tolerance; the latter doesn’t mean that conservatism’s racism has finally been revealed for all to see.”
And crucially, a key part of conservative mythology is that the silent majority shares this hatred, and that it’s only the liberal elite with its political correctness that is keeping Americans from saying what they know to be true. (It’s similar to the constant trope from Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that anyone who disagrees with him is a “far-left” type, no matter how mainstream the person’s ideas.)
So why shouldn’t the Republican base rally around “The Donald”? The elite considers him ridiculous, but the base has been told again and again that the elite is corrupt and anti-American. The base has also been told again and again that it represents the true views of everyone except Those People. So why shouldn’t its members go with someone who is their kind of guy, in style as well as substance?