There’s a few reasons. First, a lot of people are done with debates. There seems to have been nearly a dozen, and most people know where the candidates stand. Voters have mostly made up their minds, and they like Trump for his strength, his immigration position, and his commitment to the American worker. Trump is willing to emphasize a populist, nationalist, pro-American position on immigration, trade, and national defense, and, in this respect, he’s the most conservative candidate in the race. Republican politicos mindlessly repeat slogans about “free trade,” without ever considering how it worked our (or is at least supposed to work out) for actual Americans. This is the mark of moribund, outdated, and ideological thinking. While I’ve studied a great deal of economics, the case for free trade is probably the least persuasive one of economists, at least the way it’s evolved in the last few decades. One cannot help but notice that our own country’s history was often happiest and most productive during periods of heightened tariffs (such as the late 19th Century) and that the benefits of free trade with China and Mexico has accrued chiefly to multinational corporations and not to actual American workers.
Second, his style is part of the message. It translates into how we would expect a President Trump to deal with the media and Washington elite’s neverending campaign of shaming language, trying to force leaders to compromise on core beliefs. Bush the elder succumbed and violated his “no new taxes” pledge, the McCains of the world have shown this on such varied issues as gay marriage and immigration, and we see it now with all of the candidates, save Trump, in their totally bizarre obeisance to Israel and its lobby, as if they were running for Mayor of Tel Aviv and not President of the United States. Trump’s harsh tone and his failure to back down from it show a certain kind of strength that signals immunity from the usual Stockholm syndrome we can expect of any American president. In other words, he may be appear a bully, but he’s not; he’s more like a bodyguard, fighting the various bullies and charlatans who have bullied the American people for two generations. His contempt for political correctness is bracing and a testament to the fragility of the current kultursmog, and that level of contempt for the usual pieties of our political culture is part of his appeal.
Third, Trump’s criticism on the Iraq War, while not entirely articulate, conveys an important message that likely appeals to more voters than it turns off: Trump will put America first by being skeptical of the usual “national leadership” wars we have been beset with for the last 15 years. In the 2000s, Republican politics became synonymous with and was to some extent corrupted by the Iraq War. Trump sees the obvious regarding Iraq, namely, that it was a disaster. Real conservatives and people in the military are more sympathetic to this than their national spokesman may suggest. Political elites seem to think such idiotic campaigns as Libya and the proposed one in Syria are the height of sophistication, but they are not. My brother fought in Iraq twice; he remains professional military man and a patriot. But he, with his common sense and experience, saw risks and problems with the Iraq campaign that made him a skeptic, even as I was supporting it in 2003 and 2004. The Republican political machine assumes the army of defense industry lobbyists, armchair generals, and neocons in DC are simpicato with the military and their families, but the latter are actually more practical and more skeptical of many of these campaigns, not least because they’ll be the ones tasked with translating these often-utopian schemes into practice. And, oh yeah, they may be shot and maimed in the process, so there’s that. So the supposed maniac Trump signals prudent skeptism at provoking Russia or supporting moderate terrorists in Syria, even as the supposed moderates trip over themselves with their chest-thumping and promises to go head-to-head with multiple opponents, which is somehow supposed to seduce Republican primary voters. The Republican Party’s militaristic wing is likely at a low ebb this cycle, and rightly so, after the lackluster results, high costs, and false promises of Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan.
Finally, no candidate is perfect. Every candidate can only be judged against his competition, and each of his competitors has major problems in electability and trustworthiness that Republican primary voters are well aware of. Bush, Rubio, and even Cruz have been weak on immigration. Cruz, while conservative, has a reputation for unlikeability and employs a “snake handling preacher” tone that appears inauthentic and will likely be even more off-putting in a general election campaign than Trump’s. Jeb is the establishment candidate par excellence, who is also a weak and uncertain public speaker. Plus his name is Bush . . . haven’t we had enough? Rubio campaigned against amnesty only to deliver the Gang of Eight amnesty. He simply cannot be trusted. Carson is a very nice man, who has no qualifications for President and conveys little stomach for the fight required in Washington DC. And Kasich’s “let’s all play nice” tone and self-professed sympathy with liberal policies is very out of tune with the tenor of the times. We’re angry and feel put upon after eight years of Obama. We want someone who is tough and brutal and sufficiently independent to clear out the Augean Stables of Washington.
So Trump is winning. He has shown remarkable political instincts. And, just as he was predicted to falter but has instead dominated the primaries, I expect him to defy expectations in any general election campaign and as president.