Politics & Policy

Republican Primaries Get Trumped

And it’s not a bad thing!

‘He feels things like a normal guy from Queens. Not like a politician.”

That’s Maggie Gallagher, stalwart defender of traditional marriage, on The Donald.

When asked about gay marriage, real-estate celebrity Donald Trump sorta shrugs and sorta hesitates, because it’s not something he wants to campaign on or particularly wants to talk about. But he says he’s against it, and has said so a few times now.

“I just don’t feel good about it. I don’t feel right about it. I’m against it. And I take a lot of heat because I come from New York. . . . I’m opposed to gay marriage. . . . We have other problems in this country. I don’t think a president should be elected on gay marriage or not gay marriage.”

Yes, this is the Marla Maples, Ivana, tabloid-dream, gilded Donald Trump. And he’s talking about gay marriage with a straight face because he says he’s seriously considering running for president of the United States. In the Republican primary.

Needless to say, he’s not quite a normal guy from Queens. But when he talks about politics these days, he might sound like he reflects working-class values.

He also, without even saying anything, reflects the innate optimism of the guy from Queens about upward mobility, something that even this economy has not killed.

The kind of optimism people don’t mind hearing in a candidate for office.

And so maybe the fact that The Donald has tied for second place (with Mike Huckabee) in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal presidential survey isn’t all that shocking.

“Does this finding mean that Republicans have suddenly developed a passion for gaudy architecture and bad hair?” John J. Pitney, Jr., politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, asks jokingly. “Nope, the number doesn’t mean much at all. Only a couple of major would-be candidates have even formed ‘exploratory’ committees, and some other potential contenders are still undecided. Several of them are unfamiliar to most voters. In this situation, many respondents will pick Trump simply because they recognize his name. And since it will be months before they have to make a real choice, they feel free to give whimsical answers. Jabba the Hutt would probably poll well, too, but that doesn’t mean that anybody would vote for him.”

“I’ll say with a high degree of confidence that Donald Trump isn’t going to be elected president, nominated for president, or win a single presidential primary or caucus,” William Voegeli, author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, tells me. “Many more people know him, because of his skyscrapers, lifestyle, and television show, than know about Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty’s records as governors.”

And then there is the fact that there is something entertaining about the skyscrapers, lifestyle, and television show (which is why the show does well).

Right now, with almost no one in the race and certainly no one as entertaining as Trump — who seems willing to say just about anything that is on his mind or that will get him attention — he seems to be enjoying the speculation and the attention. The longer you’re in it, though, the hotter the spotlight, the more intrusive the questions. Odds are, he’s not going to have patience for the scrutiny to come. About bankruptcy. About business practices. About marriages. About character. About inconsistencies. His entertainment value would wear off, too, as questions of trust and confidence became more important.

Still, though, given his checkered, scandal-ridden past, the fact that people are taking him seriously enough seems to be more than a result of mere novelty. Sure, the Republican primary voter can enjoy the prospect of hearing Trump deliver his trademark “You’re fired,” to President Obama and the rest of the Washington crew standing in the way of the tea-party revolution of last November.

But he’s not just a primetime show. He’s also a bit of a warning.

“Obama’s job approval has been in a downward trajectory since he got a temporary bump from extending the Bush tax cuts and his speech in Tucson after the shooting,” Ralph Reed observes. “He’s beatable, but nothing is set in concrete.”

A recent Fox News poll showed 50 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of independents are unimpressed with the GOP presidential field. Where people are familiar with the names Pawlenty and Romney and all the rest who are being discussed, there’s not a lot of enthusiasm. It’s early, and perhaps that’s just fine. But the intensity with which some are insisting on alternatives — drafting Chris Christie or Marco Rubio, or others who have other important jobs to do at the moment — is more than a pre-season tailgate distraction.

“I think it reflects the weakness of the multitudinous current field,” Gallagher says about Trump’s popularity. “People like Trump because they feel he’s a big strong guy who ‘tells it like it is’ and ‘is on their side.’ It’s the same appeal Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie have. He’s going to get the bad guys for you.”

The typical guy from Queens — or certainly the typical red-state voter — naturally wants someone who shows he has some fight and resilience in him. Trump gets attention despite the obvious because he’s got that going for him, even if the fight and resilience might be largely about The Donald. He presents himself as an advocate for American exceptionalism in the face of our leaders’ dereliction of constitutional duties. And that resonates.

Serious candidates ought not to dismiss the Trump pre-show, but to learn from his appeal. He does know a thing or two about marketing, and smart communications has been known to help the good and well-intentioned win a fight or two.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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