Some people find it strange that so many Americans voted for Donald Trump. As I’ve argued, that’s not as strange as it might seem. But what is truly bizarre is that so many people who saw Trump as a deeply flawed candidate—including people who were horrified by the prospect of him winning—worked so hard to keep him in the race.
Trump would not have won the presidency but for these enablers, the people who disliked or opposed Trump but who actively promoted his campaign. If, at various points along the campaign, Trump’s enablers had withdrawn their support, Trump’s candidacy probably would have collapsed. I see five main groups of these enablers.
1. The Media
Trump was the candidate many in the media—especially the television media—loved to hate. News media gave Trump vastly greater coverage both during the primaries and during the head-to-head race with Hillary Clinton. The reason for this is simple: Trump is the most (morbidly) entertaining political candidate of all time. Trump attracted viewers; viewers attracted advertisers.
The perfect scenario for many in the media was to see Trump run a strong campaign all the way to the end—and then lose. Nothing sells better than a tight race with an underdog alternately revered and despised.
True, most media coverage of Trump cast him in a negative light. But the coverage did two unanticipated things. First, it convinced the electorate that Trump was a man to be taken seriously. After all, you couldn’t look at a newspaper or television screen without seeing his name. Second, the negative coverage played right into Trump’s strategy of running against “the media.” Trump could claim to his supporters that the “system is rigged,” that the elites are out to get them, and so on. Plus, if the despised media hate Trump so much, he must not be so bad after all, right?
The media fed their Godzilla his daily soup of radioactive coverage, and he grew big and strong. But, in the end, Clinton was no Mothra.
As I’ve pointed out, the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign wanted Trump to succeed in the primaries—because they thought he was beatable. People such as Robert Reich and Jonathan Chait actively promoted Trump.
Especially in open-primary states, countless supporters of the Democratic Party voted for Trump on the assumption that he’d be weaker than the likes of Marco Rubio. As Mark Fahey pointed out for CNBC back in March, Trump won a lot more open-primary states than closed-primary ones.
Of course, Trump chalked up such cross-voting to him winning over disgruntled Democrats. No doubt that’s part of what happened. But obviously some people cast sabotage votes for Trump thinking Clinton would beat him.
I have no idea whether Trump would have lost the Republican nomination but for sabotage voting. It sure didn’t hurt his chances.
(By the way, thanks for nothing to the Colorado voters who passed ballot measures making sabotage voting vastly more likely in our state.)
3. Republican Power-Seekers
But for Trump’s early adopters among key Republican leaders and radio hosts, Trump almost certainly would have lost. No doubt some of these supporters genuinely thought Trump would make a pretty good president. But I suspect that some of these supporters (Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie) thought that, if they bet on the right horse, they’d end up with substantial power. I imagine they assuaged their pangs of conscience by telling themselves they could keep Trump in check if he actually won. Maybe they can.
Well, Newt is relevant again, no doubt about that.
4. Trump’s Primary Competitors
As I’ve noted, Trump won the primaries with minority support as his major rivals split voter blocks.
The heavies—Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and (initially) Jeb! Bush—thought it was safer to destroy each other and let Trump eventually implode. You can’t tell me that Cruz and Kasich weren’t secretly applauding as Christie destroyed Rubio in one of the debates.
If (say) Cruz and Rubio had joined forces to create a unified ticket—hell, they could have flipped a coin for placement—they almost certainly would be president and vice president come January 20.
If the major Republican candidates had gone after Trump harder with solid opposition research, Trump probably would have lost.
But it was convenient for Trump’s major challengers to keep him in the ring. In the end, he was the last person standing.
5. The God Squad
I don’t believe that Mike Pence joined Trump’s ticket—thereby giving Trump enormous credibility, especially among evangelical voters—for love of power. I think that Pence sincerely prayed about the decision to join and, in the aftermath of the tapes of Trump and Billy Bush, to stand by Trump.
Obviously I can’t know what God told Pence, but I suspect it was something on the order of “God works in mysterious ways.”
Evangelicals hold two doctrines that made it easy for many of them to support Trump. First, they hold that all of mankind is fallen and sinful, so really Trump isn’t that much worse than the rest of us. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Second, they hold that God can use flawed individuals to accomplish God’s larger plans.
As Franklin Graham put it, “I believe that God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country.”
Part of the idea here seems to be that God would not have let Trump come to power if God didn’t have a plan to use Trump to, uh, make America great again.
Of course, this sort of thinking is extraordinarily dangerous, because there’s not really some entity behind the curtain pulling the strings. In many contexts, such rationalizations can enable very dangerous people to do extremely damaging things.
But, in this case, I think that America’s institutions and traditions, in important ways still alive in many people’s thinking, will actually keep Trump in check. For that, don’t thank God; thank Madison and his compatriots.
To the degree that evangelicals supported Trump as the lesser evil, I wouldn’t count them as enablers, just people faced with a very tough choice. They had to pit their policy goals against Trump’s obviously flawed character. So my claim is not that all evangelicals were exclusively enablers; it is that some evangelicals were at least partly enablers.
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I think it’s likely that Trump would not have won the presidency if any one of these groups of enablers had withdrawn support. If all of them had withdrawn support, he certainly never would have made it past the primaries. But all of Trump’s enablers supported Trump when it most mattered.
It’s a lot of fun to have your very own pet monster—until it’s not.