When a political analyst gets something wrong and offers an explanation for why they made a mistake, I’m inclined to accept their apology and respect their self-criticism. I’m not sure I can fully do that in the case of Jonathan Chait, however, because his explanation is that he just couldn’t grasp how monumentally “idiotic” most Republicans voters are, so he didn’t think it would be possible for someone like Trump to have so much appeal to them.
That’s a pretty half-hearted blame-shifting apology, although that alone doesn’t make it wrong as an explanation for why Chait didn’t see the Trump train coming.
But it is still pretty much wrong.
It’s not that Republicans are in love with Donald Trump and are too stupid to see his flaws. Sure, you can find people like that, perhaps a lot of them. But the error of analysis here wasn’t in misjudging Trump’s appeal but in missing the severity of the rupture between the Republican Establishment and its base. When you don’t understand that sufficiently, or lend it enough weight, then you focus too much on Trump and not enough on the utter inadequacies of his rivals for the Republican nomination.
To demonstrate my point, ask yourself which of the eleventy-billion alternatives to Trump should have been supported by “smart” Republicans. Was it Jeb, with the legacy of his brother and his support of Common Core and comprehensive immigration reform? Was it Rick “Oops” Perry with his criminal indictment? Was it the bridge-closer, Chris Christie, or the transparent lightweight Marco Rubio?
Surely it wasn’t Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina with their conspiracy theories and foolishness.
You can make a case that a saner choice would have been picking one of the two-term midwestern governors, John Kasich or Scott Walker, but it’s not like either of them were filled with charisma and surefire winners.
What explains Trump is mainly not about Trump. It’s about weak competition combined with a base that heard one too many broken promises.
And a huge part of the problem was that they were told over and over again that the world was going to end and it didn’t end. But the things that were supposed to cause the apocalypse, like Obamacare and our federal finances, didn’t get addressed the way the base expected them to be addressed.
Meanwhile, the wealthy got their tax cuts and their loopholes, and the issues that impacted the Republican base, like job loss and opioid addiction and changing social mores and immigration, didn’t get fixed.
So, to me, Chait’s rant about how stupid Republicans are isn’t just “gauche,” as he puts it. It’s not the explanation for why he failed.
The fault for Trump lies much less with the voters who support him than with the candidates they didn’t support but have supported in the past.