Politics & Policy

How Will Trump Handle the Indignity of Second Place?

The Donald at the last debate. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

Of all the presidential aspirants who are at present scrabbling their way up the White House wall, Donald Trump is by far and away the best, the classiest, and the most handsome. He doesn’t pander or kowtow to the special interests. He doesn’t back down or apologize. He doesn’t sweat, or even drink water. Instead, he makes great deals and knows the smartest people. He writes fabulous books and anchors top-rated TV shows. He makes great gobs of hard cash, sleeps on nothing less than the finest sheets, and imports only the most beautiful women to join him under them. He’s richer than Solomon, more elegant than Jackie O, and he has the hair of an exquisite racehorse. (Not Secretariat.) He wins each and every debate with ease and style. Everybody agrees with him, and they tell him so: publicly, privately, and via the most superb online polls. All ethnic groups love him in equal measure, and females up and down the land yearn for his protective hands. He’s number one; a winner; the tops.

What’s that? Ben Carson is now leading the Republican pack, beating Trump by six points nationally? And Carson is ascendant in more than one poll?

Awkward.

Just how well Trump’s triumphant shtick will work when delivered from anything other than the pole position is unclear. There is a good reason that both he and his supporters have elected to rest their case upon a tautology — “He’s winning because he’s winning!” — and that is that, in a culture that celebrates champions, standing in first place is quite the aphrodisiac. Unsure about the Donald’s positions on matters of state? Worry not: He’ll make America great again because he is great; he’ll choose the best people because he is the best people; and have you noticed how rich he is?

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At no point since the man came flying down his glitz-laden escalator has reflection been permitted to intrude upon his deliberations. Any polls that failed to show Trump dominating have been presumed to be biased or flawed, while those that flattered him have been celebrated without regard for methodology. Any evidence that Trump is doing disastrously with groups that Republicans have to win has been casually dismissed, the better to be explained away by aging outliers and good old-fashioned bluster. Any insecurities felt by his supporters, meanwhile, have been melted swiftly into generalities. It is not that they like the man and his agenda, but that all “real Americans” do; it is not that they represent a minority of the Republican electorate, but that they speak for the whole “middle class”; it is not that their hero is one contender among many, but that he is the savior of all “normal” people. Time and time again, the imperative is made clear: Whatever happens, Trump must be perceived to be conquering all before him. Number one! Number one! Number one!

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There is something especially fragile about the vehemence with which Trump and his team insist upon his primacy.

Every campaign likes to talk up its guy. Every political ego needs a massage. But there is something especially fragile about the vehemence with which Trump and his team insist upon his primacy. Could it be, perchance, they know somewhere within their souls that bravado and bluster are compelling when exhibited from on high, but rather pathetic when they pour forth from the second spot or beyond? Could it be, perhaps, that “I’m doing pretty well” is understood to be lethal to the proposition, “I’m winning because I’m a winner”? Could it be, just maybe, that the word “loser” is a relative one?

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This election season has yielded not a return to normalcy, but to a primitive and witless Harlequinade. For almost half a year now, Donald Trump has steadfastly ignored the Right’s need for a Coolidgian anti-hero and struck a messianic pose: as a deal-maker without peers, as a rock star atop the world stage, as the architect of a great and glittering empire. He has, in other words, elected to run as a more competent and less nuanced Barack Obama, complete with vacuous promises of hope and change and non-ideological star power that, this time at least, will be made to work properly. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant!

#related#How strange the change from major to minor. And how farcical officious men can be made to look when the pedestals are burned and the crowd’s hearts have wandered elsewhere in search of cheap sustenance. Heretofore, this election has been full of surprises; moving forward it will furnish yet more. Not least among them will be the scale and nature of Trump’s decline when both he and his acolytes come reluctantly to realize that he is not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.

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