Rise of the "Crazy Buts"

"Trump is crazy, but..." How badly do voters want political change?

Donald Trump. (Anadolu Agency AFP/Getty)

I spent most of the summer with Crazy Buts.

From Detroit, where my family lives, to northern Michigan, where my family vacations, I heard Republicans, independents, and even Democrats begin sentences this way: "Donald Trump is crazy, but..."

"Crazy, but he's a winner, and I'm tired of America losing."

"Crazy, but he can't be worse than what we got."

"Crazy, but he's punishing the establishment."

"Crazy, but he's driving the media nuts."

"Crazy, but he says what I can't say."

Most don't mean “crazy” in a clinical sense. “Crazy as in crass,” a landscaper from rural Michigan told me in mid-July. “I’m not sure he has the temperament to be president, but I like how he’s messing with your minds in Washington. Crazy like a crash-test dummy.”

Crazy successful. Trump defied political conventions and conventional wisdom all summer, seizing support of one-third of registered Republicans and GOP-leaning independents in today's Washington Post/ABC News poll. Combined with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson's 20 percent, two political outsiders are favored by a majority of GOP voters.

That's astonishing—to anybody who hasn't been paying attention.

For more than a generation, the public's trust in social institutions has steadily declined, as virtually every foundation of American life—churches, charities, schools, police, courts, small businesses, big businesses, the medial system, and the media—failed to adapt to immense economic and technological change, a phenomena I wrote about in a 2012 essay called "In Nothing We Trust." The trend is most pronounced in politics and government: Less than a quarter of Americans trust government in Washington always or most of the time; the Democratic and Republican parties' approval ratings are less than 40 percent; and only 14 percent of Americans think well of Congress. Those are all-time lows.

And now this from The Washington Post/ABC News poll:

Overall, the survey underscored the degree of dissatisfaction toward government and politics that is shaping the campaign. More than 7 in 10 Americans say people in politics cannot be trusted. More than 6 in 10 say the political system is dysfunctional. Sizable majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents agree with those assessments.

Think about that. When professional partisans measure the health of their business strictly by campaign victories, they ignore a deadly cancer: Most Americans don’t participate in politics or government, and most of those who do hate the system. Even people who regularly vote for candidates of a particular stripe are inspired by their loathing of the “other party” rather than respect for their own.

Populist restlessness has a foot in the Democratic campaign, too. Socialist Bernie Sanders has closed the gap on establishment favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton. Interestingly, Clinton runs about even with Trump on the critical issue of trust: Almost 6 in 10 Americans says Trump is not trustworthy, while 56 percent say that about the former secretary of State.

In June, I wrote that Trump should be taken seriously because he is "a combed-over reflection of angry America." That has proven to be true.

But I also wrote, "He won't win the nomination." That was a silly thing for me to say.

In an era of radical connectivity, instant celebrity, and social unrest and mistrust, almost nothing can be ruled out – certainly not the electoral success of somebody who promises mass disruption. Barack Obama was such a person in 2008, though his pledge of positive change was frittered away. Who am I to predict 2016 won’t be the year of negative disruption?

Even I misjudged how angry we are. Perhaps after years of disgust, disconnection, and disillusionment, we have moved beyond shrugging our shoulders at Washington. Maybe we’re shaking our fists.

That would be a good outcome, if our anger gets channeled into new political institutions and better leaders. But what if anger blinds our collective judgement?

Maybe a guy like Trump becomes president. Sounds crazy, but ...

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