Why Silver Was Wrong About Trump

Back in November, I made a considerable effort to raise objections to Nate Silver’s assessment that Donald Trump had no better than a 20% chance of winning the Republican nomination. Partly, I thought Silver was underestimating Trump’s chances. But I also objected to him telling us to “stop freaking out” because, as I saw it, things wouldn’t be any less catastrophic if Cruz, Carson or Rubio were nominated.

You know, I take a holistic view, and I think it’s a bad thing when one of our two political parties goes so deeply batshit insane that their “safe” choices are opposed to rape victims having the right to an abortion. Maybe some people are willing to screw around on the theory that the Democrats can get some enormous LBJ-size victory if the Republicans nominate the modern equivalent of Barry Goldwater. But, let me tell you, Barry Goldwater was a moderate compared to these lunatics. And there’s no iron-clad rule that says that the Republican nominee can’t win.

Plus, it’s just dangerous and sad and needlessly difficult for everyone if one side of the political divide walks so far out on a limb that no one can reach them anymore. And that’s where we’re headed.

Well, Nate came around slowly, but the scales seem to have finally fallen from his eyes.

Recently, the race took an even stranger turn. There were stories like this one, from Philip Rucker and Robert Costa at The Washington Post, suggesting that party elites were warming to Trump. Soon after, Bob Dole was suggesting that Trump wasn’t such a bad guy, while Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley was appearing with Trump and urging voters to “make America great again.”

Importantly, these actions seem to have been taken mostly in opposition to Ted Cruz, instead of in support of Trump. Nonetheless, these reports caused me to renounce much of my remaining skepticism of Trump’s chances.

Now, the way that Silver crafts his mea culpa here is interesting, in that he kind of shields himself from criticism by saying that he was relying on the analysis of political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller. Their 2008 book, The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform has been very influential and I’m not going to denigrate their work here.

Rather, I’m just going to explain why my instincts were a better indicator of where Trump would stand on the eve of Iowa than all Silver’s numbers and political science.

My experience with the modern Republican Party has been one of slowly growing awareness. I started out thinking that the Republicans were decent people who had different priorities and that it would be preferable to have a Democratic president but not catastrophic if we did not. The immediate excesses of the Gingrich Revolution began to make me wonder though. Shutting down the government seemed extreme. Their rhetoric about the Clintons and their investigations (remember Vince Foster, may he rest in peace) seemed deeply unhinged. But Bob Dole, as much as I distrusted him, wasn’t some Caligula.

Then they impeached President Clinton and published a salacious report about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. That’s when I knew that I’d misjudged these people. They were truly radicals.

I told anyone who would listen that George W. Bush was going to lead a radical revolution that would devastate this country. And that’s exactly what he did in every single way I could imagine and many ways that went beyond anything I could have ever imagined. You know the list: 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, Iraq occupation, Katrina, the Great Recession. Those were just the highlights. I have four years of archived material where I documented the atrocities of the Bush administration as they rolled in at sometimes a five-story-a-day clip. Environmental degradation, corrupt energy policies, politicization of the Justice Department, the Abramoff Scandal, Guantanamo and the corruption of our military justice system, the legalization of torture, rolling back the 1970’s intelligence reforms, Terri Schiavo and family privacy rights, outing CIA officers for no higher purpose than to win a 24-hour news cycle.

The whole enterprise was indistinguishable from a giant looting exercise, and all they left us was a smoldering husk of a country that was on its economic knees.

And, as much as I predicted this, what characterized it for me was the way I kept having to retreat from whatever credit I was willing to give Republicans. In the lead-up to the 2006 midterms, my greatest failure of analysis was that I believed that Republican lawmakers would have a sense of self-preservation and somehow distance themselves from the administration, particularly on a war that they knew had lost its casus belli from the get-go and was going horribly wrong. But they never did. They went right down with the ship.

That was a clue, and I learned from it. As a political movement, these folks are much less concerned with self-preservation than you would think. They are much more inclined to follow leadership than you’d expect. And, however bad you think they are, they’re actually worse.

Give them credit today, and your reward will be to apologize tomorrow.

That’s how things stood the day John McCain nominated Sarah Palin as his running mate. And that was the last day that the Republican Party of old existed even on paper.

The moment the organs of the GOP had to shift over to defending her preparedness and suitability to be a heartbeat away from the nuclear codes was the moment that their brain was disconnected from the rest of their central nervous system. From there, it was a short hop to climate science denialism, Birtherism, rape-don’t-get-you-pregnantism, Benghazism, and all the rest.

This is all a long way of saying that Donald Trump actually is an ideological match for the modern conservative movement. Silver insists that he is not and that this is one of the biggest reasons why he’s been predicting that Trump would peter out.

But that assumes that the key animators of the conservative movement are the familiar things like low taxes, a strong national defense, and a ban on abortion. Those aren’t the keys. The keys are 1) fear 2) hatred 3) greed and 4) a need to be led.

Trump encapsulates those almost perfectly.

Now, you can call my assessment harsh, but I didn’t get here lightly. I did not want to believe this. I came to this way of thinking kicking and screaming. But, since I gave up giving the Republicans credit for anything more, I haven’t been wrong yet.

So, when I saw Trump badmouthing McCain, I said it would help him when most people said it would sink his campaign.

I knew the base hated McCain to begin with, hated him twice-over for losing, and they’d love seeing a strong leader kick him in the teeth.

This isn’t the kind of analysis you’ll find in a political science paper or by poring over statistics. It’s raw and visceral and human. People are responding to Trump because they’re feeling xenophobic and because they want to see the Republican establishment insulted. They don’t really care about marginal tax rates or who’s been a consistent opponent of gay rights. They want someone who will get some revenge on their enemies.

So, if you start with the assumption that the base of the party likes a guy who spouts Birther nonsense more than a guy who is consistent on conservative issues and you understand that this is because he spouts Birther nonsense, you’ll do better predicting the outcome of these primaries. Hate trumps virtually everything with conservatives. But strength is important, too. Rick Santorum couldn’t get away with what Trump is doing because he doesn’t have the chutzpah for it. People would see right through Little Ricky, but Trump’s basically correct when he says that his followers are so blind that they’d support him even if he started shooting random people on Fifth Avenue.

People are coming around to this idea now because they have no other choice. They call it fascism or whatever, and you can call it what you want. But it’s not really new. It’s what’s been brewing here all along.

Now, finally, I don’t know that Trump will win the nomination. Maybe he won’t. But I don’t see a whole lot of distance between what he’s doing and what the rest of the candidates are doing. They’re all at least as radical as George W. Bush, and the gang they’d bring in with them is unquestionably much worse that the gang that came in in 2001. Most of these candidates are far, far to the right of Dubya on a host of issues, from Israel to climate to Islamophobia to the role of the federal government in education or medical policy.

There’s no longer even the pretense of anything compassionate about the conservatism of Ted Cruz or Ben Carson or Marco Rubio.

What I’m saying is, no system of analysis is perfect and even a solid one is only good until it isn’t. But, if you go on the theory that the conservative movement now controls the Republican Party completely, and that the conservative movement is mainly motivated by fear, avarice and a thirst for revenge, then you’ll do a lot better at predicting the winner of this nomination than the authors of The Party Decides.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.