Were it left to me, I’d probably retire the “clown car” analogy for the crowded 2016 Republican presidential contest. Like the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” line employed by those who sought to dismiss Hillary Clinton and the other contenders for the 2008 Democratic nomination, I think it diminishes the real competition that is going on—and the real distinctions between the candidates.
But the “clown car” line is going to be amplified as Donald Trump grabs for the wheel.
Trump’s candidacy begins as a punchline, and it’s hard to imagine how it will end as anything other than that. After teasing the country for years about entering politics, Trump finally declared Tuesday that this is no longer a joke: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am officially running for president of the United States…”
Because Trump is Trump, his campaign will be characterized as political theater of the absurd.
Of course, that is not necessarily disqualifying these days.
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Presidential campaigning has, for all intents and purposes, and with a few honorable exceptions, become political theater of the absurd. So Trump fits right in—not merely to the Republican race but to the broader 2016 competition.
* The presumed front-runners for the nominations of both major parties are the wife of one former president and the son and brother of two former presidents. Both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, no matter what their other strengths, begin the 2016 race with the presidential-level name recognition that most other candidates can only dream of. But Trump does not have to dream. He is a son of privilege whose determination to grab the spotlight has, over many decades of publicity grabbing, gained celebrity that is proximately presidential.
* It is quite likely that the eventual nominees of both major parties—and the various and sundry political operations and “independent” political enterprises associated with their candidacies—will each end up spending well in excess of $2 billion. (That’s up from the $1.2 billion for Team Romney and the $1.1 billion for Team Obama in 2012, but America is suffering from exceptional political inflation in this Citizens United era.) Claiming a net worth of $9 billion, Trump says he is the “most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far”—with a “Gucci store that’s worth more than Romney .”In the new age of money in politics, that is certainly some sort of “qualification.”
* Because of the money and the manipulation of the process, neither party is likely to nominate the candidate who speaks the values and the ideals of its base. This is not a guaranteed circumstance, and both Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul will do their best to upset the insider calculus. But if all goes according to pattern and plan, the nominees will be compromise choices rather than “right-from-the-start” favorites. That’s what our politics has become. It has been noted, of course, that Trump’s disapproval rating among Republicans is high—43 percent in the latest Public Policy Polling survey. But Chris Christie’s disapproval rating in the same poll is 49 percent, and Bush’s is 40 percent. And while Scott Walker is quite popular in national polls of voters who do not know him well, his disapproval rating in recent polling of Wisconsinites is 55 percent.
* The debates that both parties are organizing will constrict and constrain serious political discourse rather than encourage it—and, in the case of the Republicans, very possibly create a two-tiered system that effectively stamps some candidates as unworthy of serious consideration. Worse yet, the expectation is that the winners of the Democratic and Republican nominations will then appear in a handful of overly scripted fall debates that exclude third-party candidates and all sorts of issues and ideas. If Trump is excluded or diminished by Republican debate planners, count on him to raise a ruckus. And that would be terrific.
* The overwhelming majority of the messaging from both parties and from the myriad Super PACs and “charitable organizations” that seek to influence our politics will be negative. We will literally have a national campaign of enormous consequence in which the essential message will be “Don’t Vote.” Democrats will say “Don’t Vote for the Republican.” Republicans will say, “Don’t Vote for the Democrat.” But the core theme will be one of discouragement and disenchantment. And who does negative better than Donald “you’re fired” Trump?
Barring a radical twist or turn on the campaign trail—and let’s hope there are many of these between now and November 2016—this presidential race will be a theater of the absurd.
So congratulations Donald Trump. You have finally found the role you were meant to play.