So is anything really different this time? I think so. First, because of the amplification of rage against the machine by social media, and the fact that Barack Obama has grown stronger and more assertive in his second term while Republican congressional leaders have become more impotent. The unhappiness with the establishment and the desire to stiff them is much stronger. Second, the views of rank-and-file Republicans on defining issues like immigration have become more consistently extreme—a majority now agree with virtually every element of Trump’s program, including expelling all illegal immigrants.
Third, unlike in 2012, when Mitt Romney was the clear frontrunner and the only serious establishment presidential candidate, and all the pretenders were focused on destroying each other to emerge as his sole rival, this time there are multiple establishment candidates with no frontrunner, including Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Chris Christie. And each has independent financing, with enough backing from wealthy patrons to stay in the race for a long time, splitting the establishment-oriented vote. The financing, of course, raises point four: We are in a brave new world of campaign finance, where no one candidate can swamp the others by dominating the money race. When establishment nemesis Ted Cruz announced his campaign, he had $38 million in “independent” funds within a week, $36 million of it from four donors. There is likely more where that came from. Some candidates may not find any sugar daddies, or may find that their billionaires are fickle at the first sign of weakness. But far more candidates than usual will have the financial wherewithal to stick around—and the more candidates stick around, the less likely that any single one will pull into a commanding lead or sweep a series of primaries, and thus the more reason to stick around.
Fifth, the desire for an insurgent, non-establishment figure is deeper and broader than in the past. Consider that in the first major poll taken after the GOP debate, three insurgents topped the list, totaling 47 percent, with Donald Trump leading the way, followed by Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. And, as Trump and the insurgents have shown depth and breadth of support, desperate wannabes like Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal have become ever more shrill to try to compete. Walker, for example, trashed Republican leaders in Congress for breaking their promise to repeal Obamacare. Walker’s right wing alternative health plan, meanwhile, was trashed by Jindal for being too liberal. And the parade of candidates lining up behind blowing up birthright citizenship has been remarkable.
Sixth, Donald Trump, a far more savvy candidate than, say, Herman Cain, has benefited from the anger in the conservative and Republican base electorate by running a pugnacious, in-your-face, I-am not-anything-like-these-other-clowns race, with his signature position being his extreme, nativist stance on immigration. His adherents have cared little about his positions on other issues; after all, Romney, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, et al. promised them everything and produced nothing. So Ann Coulter, a Trump cheerleader, commented that she would be fine with Trump “perform[ing] abortions in the White House,” given his immigration stance, while other supporters have ignored any dissonance between Trump’s views and their own. Trump has also been the beneficiary of an almost-worshipful press thrilled with his perpetual-motion quote machine, which covers every press conference or town hall, often live on television, and rarely challenges his comments, feasting on every outrageous statement or attack against another candidate or critic. And the blanket press coverage has meant that Trump has not had to spend a dime of his fortune on political ads.